University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Cuba, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.61, Doc. 29 rev. 1 (1983).






1. With reference to the right to preservation of health and wellbeing, Article XI of the American Declaration specifically mentions food as one of the fundamental means of achieving effective observance of that right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that “every person has a right to an adequate standard of living that ensures him and his family of health and wellbeing” The provision explicitly stipulates that this right includes food. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes in Article 11, paragraph 1 that every person has the right to “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food¼” Paragraph 2 of the same article states that it is the “fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”

2. The consumption of food to provide adequate nutrition is a basic and clearly defined human need, without which human beings cannot grow and develop physically, emotionally and intellectually. Adequate nutrition is essential to infantile psychomotor development and it is also necessary to promote and improve physical and mental functions from birth until death. Malnutrition, on the other hand, increases susceptibility to infectious diseases, diminishes the productivity of labor in any kind of activity and generally limits development of man’s potential.

3. The Constitution of Cuba refers only tangentially to this right, where it establishes in Article 8 that the state guarantees “that no child be left without food”.


4. Cuba formally recognized the right to food and adequate nutrition before 1959; however, the State did not assume direct responsibility for ensuring practical observance of that right.

5. A study has presented a general view of the prevailing situation prior to the Cuban Revolution. The following quote from that report is pertinent:

“In 1956 there were 350,000 agricultural workers with 2,100,000 dependents, constituting approximately 40% of the nation’s population. Their total annual income, 190,000,000, pesos, or 7.60 pesos per capita per month. Over half of the families had annual incomes under 500 pesos, and only 7.2% received more than 1,000 pesos annually.

Over two-thirds of wages ere spent on food¼ In 1956, a family of 6 persons could spend only 17 cents per person on food. It is not surprising that malnutrition was widespread (91% in rural areas) and that the average weight of the agricultural worker was 16 lbs. Below the theoretical average and that his height was less than the Cuban average.

Rice was the principal source of energy, constituting 24% of total diet, followed by beans (23%) and root tubers (22%). Of every 100 families, only 11 drank milk regularly, while corn was available to only 7, meat to 4, bread to less than 4, eggs for 2, and none consumed vegetables. The diet of most Cubans consisted of a great deal of starch, little protein, minerals or vitamins and many carbohydrates. Over one-third of the Cuban population suffered from malnutrition, including six of every ten rural inhabitants. This deficiency of nutrition was reflected in general physical weakness, small bone structure, low resistance to disease and a high incidence of anemia.

A survey on the status of nutrition among Cuban children was carried out in 1956. The sample included children in sixth grade with an average age of 11-13 years. In terms of economic status, they represented the middle class, since the survey excluded both the more wealthy and poorer student sectors. The data revealed that rice was the greatest source of calories, followed by fats and oils; that meat provided slightly more than 10% of calories; and that flour and beans represented over 5% each. Children in private schools ere taller and weighed more than those attending public schools; however 10.4% of the latter were under normal weight. This leads to the conclusion that malnutrition was quite widespread among the poor sectors. The observed incidence of underweight children, who had suffered serious deficiencies in calcium, vitamin A, thiamin, and riboflavin, was higher among children in rural areas than among those from urban areas, while the opposite was true with respect to the overweight rate. Skeletal deformities attributable to low consumption of calcium were observed in one out of nine children.[1]

6. It has been recorded that in the 1950s, in a public children’s hospital in Havana, 92% of the patients had deficient diets.[2] Although there are no national studies of food consumption for the period under consideration, it may be assumed that Cuba, like most of Latin America, faced a serious problem of malnutrition.

7. Before 1959, significant nutritional differences could be observed on the basis of place of residence (urban areas enjoyed better nutrition than rural ones), social class (higher income groups received a better diet than that of low-income groups), race (nonwhites had poorer nutrition than whites), and education (the better educated tended to have better nutrition).[3] Furthermore, the State did not regard the provision of food to the population as its responsibility. As a result, measures were not adopted to diagnose the problem, evaluate its scope and implement programs to remedy it.

8. The World Health Organization has pointed out that nutrition can only be improved when coordinated measures are adopted in the context of an integral approach, which should include, among other aspects, better health services, greater educational opportunities, reduction of unemployment, greater distribution of income, and food subsidies. In addition, one of “the principal factors that determine the quality of nutrition is the nature and quantity of food supply. If supply is inadequate, malnutrition is to be expected as a result.[4]

9. The first ten years of the current political process in Cuba has been described as “critical”, at least with respect to the food situtaion.[5] FAO food production indices for the 1959-1970 period revealed rather poor output, but exact figures are not available on real food consumption for this period. It would be a serious error, however, to equate food production with real food consumption. It has been stated that “caution must be taken in assuming a direct correspondence between agricultural production figures and food consumption levels in any country, and, in particular, in Cuba. In the first place, since 1963, Cuban statistics do not reflect total Cuban national production, but rather simply that portion of total production that is gathered by the state collection agency”.[6] Furthermore, imports, exports and production for personal or family consumption must be taken into account. Clearly it is impossible to reconstruct a complete picture of the total availability of food if these factors must be taken into account, as there is no available data on them. For that reason, it is necessary to work on the basis of available statistics and to try to obtain an approximate assessment of the situation.

1. Rationing

10. A general description of food consumption patterns in Cuba should begin with an analysis of the rationing system. Rationing of food products was begun in March, 1962. In principle, the system ensured equality of consumption to the population, since every Cuban was legally permitted to buy the same amount of basic food products at the same prices. Prices were frozen in 1962 and were maintained until 1982 without change. Ration cards set limits on the quantities that one person could purchase, although it should be pointed out that rationing does not guarantee that those products will be available for purchase each month.

11. The data indicates that national food consumption deteriorated considerably in the 1960s, and began to improve in the 1970s. However, there are regional differences. It has been noted that despite a more equitable distribution of consumption goods among the provinces, “the residents of the Province of Havana continue to enjoy in 1970 a considerably higher level of consumption”.[7] Apparently, the situation has slowly changed in the course of the 1970s.

2. Other Food Sources

12. The rationing book ensures each person “the minimum available diet”.[8] This is not the only food source in the country, however, since there are special cafeterias for workers that offer breakfast, lunch and dinner at subsidized prices. In 1965, approximately 135,000 workers, who as a rule did not pay for these meals, subsisted in this way. Six years later, that number had increased to 810,000,[9] or 39% of the labor force.

13. In 1981, the cafeterias for workers began to charge their users, with the exception of those with very low wages. A meal in a cafeteria costs approximately US$0.60. Schools, child-care centers and hospitals proved food free. In 1965, 626,000 people received breakfast, lunch or dinner free each day.[10] In 1970, this number had had reached 2.2 million, and ten years later it reached 3.1 million Cubans.[11] In other words, 32% of the total population of the country received food free or at below cost. It has been stated that a “typical lunch consists of rice, beans a small amount of canned meat, and dessert”.[12] However, people who in 1980 and 1981 ate in some of these cafeterias for workers have indicated that flour, cheese and other dairy products predominated in the typical meal. In 1975, there were 1,400 cafeterias for workers; 4 years later, the number reached 14,792. [13] At that time, the State managed 26,671 units which distributed food free or at very low prices.

14. School breakfasts and lunches were supplied to 88,500 children in child care centers, to 569,600 students on scholarship, (who also received dinners), and 268,100 secondary students in the “school in the country” program during 1978-1979.[14] It has been stated that “school nutrition programs are obviously a very important source of nutrition for secondary school students attending boarding schools. In 1978, there were 350 boarding schools in the rural area of Cuba and several more under construction each year. It is forecast that by the middle of the eighties a majority of secondary school students will be boarding students. Their nutritional needs during the school year will be fully met by the State with no cost whatsoever borne by their parents”[15]

15. The State also provided free meals to 1.2 million patients in hospitals in 1978 and to 8,607 people who were of advanced age, mentally or physically handicapped, or who required special assistance at the time. In addition, 1,046 women in maternity homes that year also received free meals.[16]

16. Finally, peasants in the private sector, the members of agricultural cooperatives, and parceleros (agricultural workers employed by State agricultural collectives) also raise subsistence crops. There are no figures for this sector; nevertheless, it seems that many peasants have a more varied, larger and perhaps even better diet than that of the urban population.[17]

3. Nurtirion Levels

17. Estimates of the average daily per capita consumption of calories reveals a progressive decline from 2,730 calories at the beginning of the Revolution to 2,320 calories in 1962-1963, which was its lowest point. This decline represented a fall of 15% in the national average, but since the daily calorie quantity for Cuba (according to FAO) was from 2,400 to 2,460 calories per capita daily, it meant that consumption had declined by 4-6%. This situation has been recognized by members of the Government. Miguel Dotres, of the Directorio de la Junta Central de Planificación (Office of the Director of the Central Planning Board), has recognized that “we are not ashamed to say it: but here there were years, not just one or two or three, in which we could only eat the strict ration given in our homes, but when absolutely nothing was to be had in either restaurants or cafeterias there were years of real hunger, because the problem was not to feed a small number of people, but rather millions”.[18] Dotres said this happened as a result of the fundamental shift in the external economic relations of Cuba, lack of replacement parts and the economic isolation of the island due to the economic blockade begun by the United States in 1962.

18. The Organization for Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO) stated in a report that the “drastic change” in the distribution of income in Cuba led to a considerable increase, approximately 13-14% in the demand for food, which represented an improvement in the general diet.[19] In fact, despite the fall in food production, the country attained a progressive increase in per capita calorie consumption which has been maintained above the minimum daily requirement. In 1975, real calorie consumption had regained the mathematical average of the 1950s. The FAO stated in a report that “in countries with dietary energy supplies above requirements, there have been few changes in 1975 with the single exception of Cuba, where the situation improved further”.[20] For 1981, daily per capita consumption of calories had reached nearly 2,900.[21] In all of Latin America, only Argentina surpasses Cuba in this respect.

4. Malnutrition

19. Systematic national studies of malnutrition in Cuba have yet to be done. There are however, a few local studies that may be useful. In 1967, the rural community of San Andrés de Caiguanabo was thoroughly researched, and it was discovered that 6% of pre-school children suffered from second degree malnutrition. Their diets were deficient in vitamins A and B as well as in protein. The following year, the sugar region of Alquizaar was studied, and it was found that the situation there was worse: 25% of pre-school children suffered from first degree malnutrition and another 5% suffered from second-degree malnutrition. In addition, they all suffered from deficiencies of calcium and vitamin A.

20. In rural areas, malnutrition is primarily defined as low nutrition, and in urban areas there is malnutrition from excess. In 1973, in the district of Marianao of the Province of Havana, it was discovered that 20.2% of children in child-care centers were overweight.[22] Cuban authorities revealed at the beginning of the 1970s that 60% of child malnutrition cases occurred in rural areas, that 90-92% were related to infectious diseases and that the mothers were functionally illiterate or had very little schooling. The recovery level has been approximately 60%;[23] in 1979, few malnutrition cases were reported. [24]

21. Foreign observers agree on the progress made in lowering the incidence of malnutrition in Cuba. It has been stated that “given the equity imposed by wage policy and the rationing of food, there is no rason to dubt the affirmation of the government that malnutrition in Cuba has fallen from a pre-revolutionary level of 40% to a current level of less than 5%.[25] A US Government analyst who closely follows Cuban matters has stated that “a highly egalitarian redistribution of income has almost eliminated malnutrition, particularly among children”.[26] Another study, also done by the Government of the United States, indicates that “the Cuban system of strict rationing has brought hunger and malnutrition under control”.[27]

22. In view of the above, it may be stated that although there is no legislation that obligates the State in Cuba to provide an adequate level of nutrition to the population, widespread changes have taken place that have led to a very marked improvement for most of the population in terms of nutrition. The country’s food policy has ensured every citizen a minimal quantity of food at subsidized prices, despite a secular global trend toward price increases.

23. Food consumption in the 1960s was beset by a number or problems, in particular shortages, which resulted in widespread suffering for the population. Nevertheless, the situation improved in the 1970s. A considerable part of the populace has received food free or at very low prices; this policy is now changing , since most workers must now pay for their meals. However, this is not the case in educational or medical establishments.

24. Food rationing and the egalitarian income distribution policy has ensured a basic diet to all Cubans. The rationing system has begun to change in the 1980s in that more articles are passed on to “the free market”, while new wage scales apparently have brought about an increase in income differences among the population.

25. Differences between urban and rural areas have fallen to the point that inhabitants of rural areas may be receiving better food than city populations, which would represent a significant reversal of the situation in the past. Food consumption is affected to a certain degree by age, occupation or status of individuals. Young children and the elderly receive special rations, as do those who work in mines or in dangerous occupations (as well as athletes). Pregnant women and those suffering from certain specific illnesses also receive special diets and food.


[1] Valdés, Nelson P., “Health and Revolution in Cuba”, Science and Society, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 313-314.

[2] Domínguez, Jorge, Cuba Order and Revolution, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 224.

[3] Aballi, Arturo J., “Distrofias infantiles en nuestro medio”, Revista Cubana de Piediatría, Vol. 30, No. 9, September 1958.

[4] World Health Organization, The Role of the Health Sector in Food and Nutrition, Report of a WHO Expert Committee, Technical Report Series 666, Geneva, 1981, p.7.

[5] Brundenius, Claes, “Growth with Equity: The Cuban Experience (1959-1980)”, World Development, Vol. 9, Nos. 11/12, 1981, p. 1,087.

[6] Handelman, H., “Cuban Food Policy and Popular Nurtirional Levels”, Cuban Studies, July 1981, p. 129.

[7] Roca, Sergio, “Methodological Approaches and Evaluation of Two Decades of Redistribution in Cuba”, Department of Sociology, Adelphi University, December 1979, p. 19.

[8] Handelman, H., “Cuban¼” op. Cit., p. 137.

[9] Ministry of Public Health, Cuba: La salud en la revolución, Havana, 1975, pp. 144-145.

[10] Valdés, N.P., “Health¼” op. Cit., p. 316.

[11] Presentation made by Eugenio Balari, Director of the Institute of Internal Demand, June 2, 1980 to the UNM-Cuba Study Group. Havana, Cuba.

[12] Handelman, HJ., “Cuban¼” op. Cit., p. 138.

[13] Comité Estatal de Estadísticas, Cuba en Cifras, 1979, Havana, 1980, p. 51.

[14] Cuba en Cifras, op. Cit., p. 68

[15] Handelman, H., “Cuban ¼” op. Cit. P. 139.

[16] Anuario Estadística de Cuba, 1978, p. 247.

[17] Granma resumen Semanal, May 1982, pp. 2-5.

[18] Presentation by Miguel Dotres to the UNM – Cuba Study Group on June 4, 1980, Havana, Cuba.

[19] United Nations, FAO, The Impact on Demand of Changes in Income Distribution, CCP 72, WP.2, Rome, 1971.

[20] The FAO has changed the level of the daily calorie requirement for Cuba from 2,460 to 2,310. See: United Nations, FAO, Monthly Bulletin of Agricultural Economic and Statistics, Vol. 25, No. 5, May 1976, p. 6 and Vol. 26, April 1977, p. 10.

[21] Different sources provide different figures for 1981. See: United States, Central Intelligence Agency. The Cuban Economy: A Statistical Review, ER 81-10052/PA, March 1981, p. 45.

[22] Ministry of Public Health, Cuba op. Cit., p. 142.

[23] M. P. hermelo, M. Amador and J. Vacallao, “Nutritional Assessment of Infants and Pre-School Children Using Two Different Anthropometric Criteria of Classification”, Academia Scientiarum Hungariacae, Vol. 20. No. 1, 1979, pp. 35-42.

[24] F. Hernández and M. Castellanos, “Recuperación nutricional infantil mediante internamiento”, Boletin de Higiene y Epidemiología, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1973, pp. 3-16.

[25] Handelman, H., “Cuban …” op. cit., p. 142.

[26] Theriot, Lawrence, Cuba Faces the Economic Realities of the 1980s, a study prepared for the use of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, March 22, 1982, US: Government Printing Office, Washington, 1982, p. 5.

[27] International terroism, Hearing, Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate. Ninety-seventh Congress, 1st Session, Washington, D.C.: Government Printint Office, 1981. For a comprehensive study of the impact that diet has had on biological growth, see: J. Jordan, et al, “The 1972 Cuban national Child Growth Study as an Example of Population Health Monitoring. Design and Methods”, Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1975, pp. 153-171; J. Jordan, et al, Desarrollo humano en Cuba, Havana: Editorial Científico Técnica, 1979.


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