Cuba to ration more products due to economic crisis, U.S. sanctions

HAVANA (Reuters) - Communist-run Cuba said on Friday it would control more the sales of certain foodstuff and hygiene products, including adding some back to the ration card, due to shortages that it blamed partly on the tightening of the U.S. trade embargo.

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Shop shelves on the Caribbean’s largest island have been increasingly empty of late with scarcity of basic products such as eggs, flour and chicken, and massive, hours-long queues for them whenever they come into stock.

Cubans have been flooding social media with photos of the queues they are in, under the hashtag #lacolachallenge (queue challenge) to highlight the problem.

Cuba imports 60 to 70 percent of its food. A handful of agricultural reforms in recent years have failed to boost output in its inefficient, centrally-planned economy, which also suffers from a decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

But a decline in aid from key ally Venezuela and lower exports have left it struggling to find the cash to import. More U.S. sanctions since Donald Trump became president have worsened its liquidity crisis.

Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz said on Friday another problem was hoarding by Cubans worried about whether products would disappear and speculators aiming to re-sell goods on the black market.

As a result, Cuban supermarkets will from now on limit how much each person can buy of certain products like chicken and soap, she said. Other products such as eggs, rice, beans and sausages, will only be available to purchase with the ration card, and limited to a certain quantity each month.

“Our mission is to fracture all the measures the U.S. government imposes, and today we are setting priorities,” Diaz said on the midday state-run news broadcast.

Some Cubans, particularly those on low state salaries and pensions who cannot afford black market prices, expressed relief.

“These measures are important for those Cubans most in need,” said pensioner Elizabeth Ortega, 72.

Others said it highlighted the mismanagement of the economy.

“These measures are a temporary remedy but they do not resolve Cubans’ problems in the long run,” said Ihosvany Perez Rodriguez, 34, who runs a small shop in Havana. “The country produces too little and so does not have enough money.”

The head of the Communist Party Raul Castro introduced a series of reforms around a decade ago in the hope of opening up and boosting the economy, which is one of the world’s last Soviet-style command economies.

However that reform drive has tapered off in recent years partly due to discontent with some of its consequences such as rising albeit still low inequality and less state control.

The move on Friday represents a setback to one of the proposed reforms, to end the universal rationing system, introduced just after the 1959 revolution.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta; Editing by James Dalgleish