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Cuba faces food shortages after hurricanes

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban markets offered a dwindling selection of food and a growing expanse of empty shelves on Wednesday as food shortages the government warned about after hurricanes Gustav and Ike became increasingly evident.

A farmer sells vinegar at a market in Havana October 1, 2008. Cuban government has rationed some agricultural products to face a shortage caused by recent hurricanes which devastated island's cultivations, official media said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

The shortages were exacerbated in the Cuban capital when shipments from food suppliers slowed in a conflict with the government over newly imposed price controls.

In markets around Havana, customers found stretches of mostly vacant vendor stalls and limited supplies of food. A market in the Vedado district offered only papayas, a small stack of melons and a few bulbs of garlic.

Vendors shrugged their shoulders and said nothing else had arrived for them to sell.

A shopper named Yissel, who did not provide her full name, said the situation was the same in other markets and in her neighborhood grocery store.

“These are difficult times because everything is so affected, so damaged (by the hurricanes),” she said. “In Minimax (grocery store), it was like I’d never seen it. I saw almost nothing, not like other times.”

Due to problems in its state-run agriculture, Cuba has long struggled to meet its food needs and imports much of what it consumes.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike made the problem worse when they ripped through most of the country in a 10-day span starting August 30, causing $5 billion in damage and destroying 30 percent of Cuba’s agriculture.

A top agriculture official warned two weeks ago of impending food shortages that he said could last six months. But he said the government had implemented emergency measures to make sure no Cuban went hungry.

On Wednesday, Cuba’s state-run press reported that those measures included placing limits on the amount of food to be purchased and putting caps on prices.

One newspaper reported that many food suppliers had not made their usual shipments because the government’s price controls would cause them to lose money.

The government in recent days has issued strong warnings against price gouging and through Cuban media has hinted that markets where trade has not been state-controlled may be shut down.

Cubans said food difficulties were to be expected after the devastation of Gustav and Ike, but they should last only a few months as agricultural production is renewed.

Government worker Hernan, who did not give his last name, said he did not expect anything like the harsh deprivation Cubans suffered in what is known as the “special period,” the years after the Soviet Union, Cuba’s biggest benefactor, collapsed in 1991.

“This is a country that knows how to learn from bad experiences,” he said. “I hope the authorities have learned from the special period and won’t let it happen again.”

The situation would be less dire, said Elsie Perez Martinez, a doctor, if the nearby United States had given Cuba a hand by providing aid or lifting its 46-year-old trade embargo against communist-run Cuba.

“If it were not for the blockade (embargo), it would not have come to this,” she said. “They won’t let us buy in the United States.”

The United States has offered more than $5 million in aid, which Cuba rejected. Cuba requested that the U.S. temporarily lift the embargo so it can purchase goods for recovery, but the Bush administration refused. The United States has permitted food sales to Cuba since 2001 but only for cash and not on credit.

Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman