Friday, October 3, 2008

Cuba Announces A Freeze On Food Prices

On newspaper front pages, the island's government warned of 'quick' punishment for food vendors violating price caps.

HAVANA -- Cuba announced price freezes at all farmers markets on Monday, promising to punish any vendors charging more for hard-to-find fruits and vegetables as food reserves dwindle due to the destruction caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

A decree occupying the entire front pages of state-run newspapers said prices at agricultural markets will remain fixed at levels set by regional communist committees, and that supply-and-demand farmers markets will have prices revert to pre-hurricane levels ``for a group of basic products.''

The government also warned of a crackdown on those who steal food and construction materials from work and sell them on the black market, a common practice in Cuba, which is plagued by a wide array of shortages, like cement and breakfast cereal.

''Any attempt to violate the law or social norms will be met with a quick and energetic answer,'' it said.

The move seemed aimed at reassuring Cubans that basic food prices will not rise even though the storms ravaged 30 percent of the island's crops and officials have warned of food shortages that could last six months.

An informal survey by an AP reporter of farmers markets in Havana found prices for basics such as rice, taro root, black beans, bananas, sweet potatoes and mangos did not increase after the storms, though state television says government inspectors have shut down dozens of produce stands for raising prices as supplies dwindle.

And while farmers markets still have most basic fruits and vegetables, the quantities are smaller than last month.

Nearly all Cubans work for the government and earn average monthly salaries of 408 pesos ($19.50).

They get a modest amount of subsidized food on a monthly ration, and turn to farmers markets for fruits and vegetables.

''It's good they are taking these steps. At least they won't raise prices,'' said Kenia Gonzalez, a Havana street sweeper who earns about $12 monthly.

``It's a relief because prices are already very high and the money isn't enough for anything.''

The farmers markets were set up in 1994 to assuage widespread hunger following the Soviet Union's collapse. Small producers and cooperatives sell on a supply-and-demand basis any produce they have left over after meeting state production quotas.

The announcement was met with some skepticism by Cubans already outraged that private transportation costs have soared since the government raised gasoline prices Sept. 8 -- the same day Ike tore across the island.

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.

Source: MiamHierald.Com

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