HAVANA – Cuba is limiting how much basic fruits and vegetables people can buy at farmers' markets, irritating some customers but ensuring there's enough — barely — to go around.
The lines are long and some foods are scarce, but because the government has maintained and even increased rations in some areas, Cubans who initially worried about getting enough to eat now seem confident they won't go hungry despite the destruction of 30 percent of the island's crops by hurricanes Gustav and Ike last month.
"Of the little there is, there is some for everyone," 65-year-old Mercedes Grimau said as queued up behind more than 50 people to buy lettuce, limited to two pounds per person.
"I'm not afraid that I will be left without food, but it's a pain to think about all the work we are going to have to go through," Grimau added. "Two or three months ago the farmers markets were well-stocked."
Cuba's government regularly stockpiles beans and other basics, and Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said authorities are ready to increase the $2 billion they already spend on food imports annually. The world credit crisis won't affect much of those imports because U.S. law forces communist Cuba to use cash to purchase American farm goods. But imports from other countries bought with credit could become more difficult or expensive.
The government is delivering all items distributed each month on the universal ration that provides Cubans with up to two weeks of food — including eggs, beans, rice and potatoes — at very low cost. In some hard-hit provinces, extra food has been added.
But the rest of the food Cubans supplement their diets with at supply-and-demand farmers markets and government produce stands has dwindled, prompting the government to limit consumer purchases and cap prices on items including rice, beans, root crops and fresh greens.
Rodriguez has sought to dispel speculation about a replay of the desperate early 1990s, when shelves were bare and people survived for weeks on one small meal daily. Cubans who lived through deprivation after the Soviet Union's collapse say the current food situation doesn't come close.
"It is true that it will take us some time to bring the agricultural production up to the levels that existed before the hurricanes," Rodriguez told state television this week. "Nevertheless, there is no reason to speculate or assume that there will be any hunger."
Although Cuba's relative financial isolation partially protects it from the jolts of the world economy, an extended credit crisis could stunt the island's foreign currency income if Cubans living abroad lose jobs and stop sending family remittances, or if potential tourists can no longer afford to travel.
But now, Cuba's top challenge is to increase local production of fruits and vegetables sold at the farmers' markets.
Waiting at one market on a recent morning, 55-year-old homemaker Regla Suazo said, "At least with the measures I know I can buy something." Shortly thereafter, the first truck of the day pulled up with green beans, green onions, guavas, avocados, corn, squash, cassava root and sweet potatoes.
But quantities were much smaller than usual. Vendor Nadia Gomez, who received nothing that day, said police checkpoints leading into Havana now turn away trucks unauthorized to market produce in the capital or have been ordered send their goods to harder-hit areas.
Cuban agricultural officials expect six months of food shortages, and are increasing short-cycle crops such as salad greens and taking other measures to ensure everyone gets enough to eat.
At Cuatro Caminos farmers market, among Havana's largest and most varied, vendor Juan Carlos Martinez lamented he had only papayas, guavas and pineapples to sell. "This isn't the business it used to be," he said.