Cuba guarantees food rations in bid to defuse tension after protests

HAVANA (Reuters) -Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Thursday his communist-run government has secured supply of key subsidized food rations as he moved to defuse tensions just two weeks after protesters took to the streets over widespread shortages.

Diaz-Canel, who appeared on the mid-day TV newscast, said his government had undertaken an "enormous effort" to ensure the supply of food for the island`s population of 11 million.

"April and May are going to be months with better prospects," he said. "The Cuban government will continue to be committed to guaranteeing the people their levels of essential foods."

The message of renewed optimism follows a donation of 70 tonnes of rice this week from China, the first of six shipments totaling 400 tonnes that Beijing has agreed to deliver to Cuba.

Diaz-Canel received Luo Zhaohui, chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, in Havana on Thursday, according to Cuban state-run media.

"You have extended a hand to Cuba at ... an extremely complex economic and social moment," the Cuban president told Luo.

Cuba has since Fidel Castro`s 1959 revolution provided its citizens with a monthly ration of basics such as rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil and coffee, but those deliveries have been scaled back over the years as an economic crisis has led to shortages and high prices.

The shortages, combined with oppressive 10-20 hour-long blackouts across the country, prompted several hundred protesters to take to the streets on March 17 in and around Santiago de Cuba, long considered a bastion of government support, as well as in nearby Bayamo and Matanzas.

The government moved quickly in recent days to defuse tensions, ramping up electricity generation almost immediately, largely eliminating the blackouts that have plagued much of the island for months.

Protests have since subsided.

Oscar Pérez, vice minister of foreign trade, said on Thursday`s state-run newscast that basic food items would also be guaranteed until June.

"We can confirm without a doubt that we have the availability of fundamental products such as rice until the month of June," he said.

He said the country was also working to guarantee the supply of both wheat flour for bread production and milk for children into June as well.

Cuba`s food ration program carries a monthly price tag of $230 million, according to the newscast.

Cuba is struggling to raise the cash it needs to underwrite its social programs, the result of tough U.S. sanctions, an inefficient state-run economy and a tourism industry struggling to recover following the coronavirus pandemic.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Nick Macfie)