Blame it on the Yanquis? Cuba runs low on beer in tourism boom

HAVANA (Reuters) - The ubiquitous fridges that dispense beer in Cuba’s bars, cafes and gas stations are running out of the island’s favorite Cristal and Bucanero brands in recent weeks, as a surge in American tourists and new private watering holes strain the main brewery.

Brewer Bucanero needs a new plant to keep pace with demand from tourists and a burgeoning private restaurant sector that competes with state-run outlets for supplies, Mayle Gonzalez, a sales executive at the company told state media on Friday.

As well as its namesake, Cerveceria Bucanero makes the Communist-led country’s most widely consumed brew, Cristal. The company is a government joint venture with the world’s largest brewer, Belgium’s Anheuser Busch InBev.

After U.S. President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in his bid to end more than 50 years of enmity with the Caribbean nation, American tourists are arriving in significant numbers on the streets of Old Havana.

Hundreds will step off a cruise ship from Miami into the city next month, the first such voyage since the U.S. embargo that followed Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

While the embargo remains in place, ordinary Cubans have warmed to their “Yanqui” neighbors, especially after Obama’s visit to Cuba last month, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years.

Cuba received a record 3.5 million visitors last year, up 17 percent from 2014. American visitors rose 77 percent to 161,000, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans, testing the country’s supply of hotel room, rental cars and beer. [L2N15A0X8]

The most recent tourism figures, for January, showed a similar pace of growth.

Small restaurants that cater to both tourists and Cubans have blossomed on the Caribbean island since President Raul Castro five years ago formalized changes designed to remove the Communist state from many small-scale economic activities.

“Private bars can go out and find supplies where they can, I can only sell what the government gives me,” said the manager of a state-run bar that ran out of beer, while a private locale upstairs had a fridge full of cold bottles.

At its seventh Communist Party congress next week, Cuba’s leadership is expected to push ahead with economic reforms outlined in 2011, although the tight-lipped party has given little sign of what will be discussed.

The congress is the country’s main forum for defining leadership and economic policy for the next five years.

Editing by Mary Milliken