Zunilda Mata, Havana, 22 January 2018 — Cuba is intending to buy Peru’s surplus potatoes, if and when they meet the the phytosanitary requirements for export. Peru’s Minister of Agriculture, José Arista, reported on the efforts made by the Cuban embassy in Lima during a meeting with local producers last Wednesday, which was reported in the newspaper La República on Sunday.
The information comes to light in the midst of the “cold season,” the period during which most of the Cuban potato harvest takes place, which ends more or less in March. This year the crop forecasts are not optimistic due to the intense rains of recent months and the damages caused by Hurricane Irma.
In the provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Ávila, among the most affected by the hurricane, the Agricultural Business Group (GAG) had planned to plant 7,942 acres of potatoes during the month of October so that the product would arrive in state agricultural markets in January and February.
However, by mid-December, only 10% of the target acreage had been sown, according to the official press, due to the rains and the wetness of the land that affected the sowing of the crop.
Fabian Lozano, a farmer from Artemisa, has been engaged for five years in the harvest of the tuber but is about to surrender due to the difficulties involved in growing it. “It is a crop that demands a lot of care,” the farmer tells 14ymedio by phone. “It is not just a matter of climate but it is necessary to have a stable technological package,” he laments.
An efficient irrigation system and the availability of fertilizers and insecticides supplied on time are essential for this product to succeed, given that it is not native to the Island. Access to the seed, which is mainly imported from the Netherlands and Canada, can also become a headache.
A national variety known as Romano is more resistant to pests and is an option to ease these demanding requirements, but its performance leaves much to be desired. “It is a more resistant potato but when it comes to harvesting or reproducing, a lot is lost,” says Lozano.
Specialists expect the Romano variety to yield 600 to 660 tons (US measure) per 33 acres when the conditions are ideal, but imported specimens yield 716 tons, according to sources of the Ministry of Agriculture consulted by this newspaper.
The Artemiseño municipality of Alquízar, where Lozano lives, produces one of the largest potato crops in the country. With fertile and flat land, the growers planned to plant nearly 620 acres this season, but the authorities have not yet revealed whether the initial goal was achieved.
“We have had many problems with the seed because there is a lot of loss due to theft,” the administrator of a Basic Unit of Cooperative Production in the area, who preferred anonymity, tells this newspaper. “We work with imported seeds but we lose up to a third of it because of the diversion of resources,” he reveals.
In Cuba the potato is sown mainly through pieces of the tuber itself, which is called “seed,” a practice that helps to maintain the genetic makeup of the plant without alterations. Proper storage of the seed is crucial for the subsequent quality of the harvested food.
“Sometimes we have to guard the potato seed more closely than the cows,” laments the administrator. “When we are sowing we always have to have a group of workers bending over the furrow and another group watching so that they do not take the seed.”
In the informal market in the area, private farmers value the foreign seed greatly because “it yields more and the final product is more marketable,” Lozano says. “Here there are many producers who sell directly to the owners of private restaurants who want a nice, big, meaty and healthy potato,” he points out.
“The customer can choose between these three side dishes: rice, fried potatoes or mashed potatoes (not instant),” clarifies a letter from a private restaurant in the Havana municipality of Playa. The owners of these restaurants often have to turn to the precooked or powdered product to make up for shortages of raw potatoes.
“We have many diners who are diplomats in the area of the city where we are located, as well as tourists who know very well what a potato is in its natural state,” explains Miguel Ángel, a waiter at a private restaurant a few yards from the coast with a spectacular view of the sea.
Maintaining the supply of fresh potatoes is “more difficult than buying lobster or shrimp,” says the employee. “For years we have established an agreement with several producers to buy directly all their production and then we have to refrigerate it ourselves so that it lasts for the better part of the year.”
Potato production has plummeted on the island since 1996, when 384,000 tons were produced and the country exported the tuber. In 2015, amidst the increase in consumption due to the growth of tourism and the private sector, barely 137,000 tons were collected and the Government was forced to import 17,000 tons, almost twice as much as in 2014, according to data from the Statistical Yearbook.
The potato is a product with a strong symbolic importance for Cuban families. Until 2009 its distribution was exclusively through the rationed market at a price of 0.45 Cuban pesos (roughly 2¢ US) per pound and its cultivation was a monopoly of state entities.
In 2009, one year after Raúl Castro formally assumed the presidency, the government de-controlled the tuber and allowed — for the first time in decades — it to be planted in plots that were not under the control of the State or a cooperative. This “liberalization” of the potato became an emblem of the so-called “Raulist reforms.”
However, the official calls to achieve elf-sufficiency in potato production and the delivery of lands to private formers in a form of leasing known as usufruct as a way to cut imports did not yield the expected results. By the end of 2017, the country was importing more than 80% of the food it consumes, at an annual cost exceeding two billion dollars.
In 2017, the potato was once again regulated, although the authorities maintain that this was not a return to rationing. Each Havana consumer can only buy 14 pounds of the product spread over three months and must show their ration book, but the price per pound has risen to 1 Cuban peso (roughly 4¢ US).
The potato is the star of the black market from the middle of the month of February until well into the spring. For 1 Convertible peso (24 Cuban pesos) you can buy a bag of potatoes with about five pounds of first quality and totally clean tubers (that is you are not paying for any dirt clinging to them), just outside the same markets where potatoes are offered in a regulated manner.
Miguel Alejandro Figueras, 2007 winner of the Cuban National Economy Prize, says that “per capita potato consumption in Cuba in 1985 was about 60 pounds” annually. In 1985, “the production exceeded 330,000 tons, accounting for 44% of all the tubers consumed in the country.” Of every 10 pounds of tubers eaten at domestic tables, almost half were potatoes.
Currently per capita consumption “is, at most, about 10-11 pounds, one-sixth of thirty years ago,” says the specialist. In 2014, the potato only accounted for 3% of the total production of root vegetables and tubers.
As of 2007, the number of areas dedicated to the cultivation of Solanum tuberosum was reduced. For Miguel Alejandro Figueras the prognosis is not promising: “Every season we plant less.” The economist notes that in the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba where “the 313 Guidelines” were approved for economic policy, among them 37 specific to the agricultural sector, “the potato is not mentioned in any.”
Importing potatoes from Peru can be a solution that addresses demand while the national production remains in a slump.
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