14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 1 November 2014 – One of the distinctive features of the new era in Cuba is that it is no longer shortages but pricing that explains the difficulty of acquiring food grown on the island, but at bottom the issue is the same as always: lack of productivity.
For decades Cubans “got used” to the non-existence of certain agricultural products. Especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s when there was a stronger dependence on the ration market and consumers felt more like users than customers. The production plans were conceived to satisfy, barely, the rationing plan and there wasn’t even a way of marketing the excess.
Every time policies emerged that tended towards openings –such as the farmers markets of the ‘80s – fruits, vegetables and meats absent from the ration book reappeared on the stands, but along with the happy return of mamey, lettuce and malanga, also appearing were the long faces of those who didn’t even bother to reach into their pockets when they saw the exorbitant prices.
Then the righteous zeal of the Maximum Leader, his unbridled voluntarism, decided to prohibit these manifestations of mercantilism and beans, onions, and of course meat, were once again lost to us. Like the erratic gait of Ruperto, a TV comic character of our time, every two steps forward necessarily entailed one step back.
But the long faces of the “disadvantaged” still demand some Robin Hood to bring order to the Sherwood Forest. In letters from readers of the newspaper Granma or on the National Television program “Cuba Says” the indignant tear their hair out in the face of “the abusive prices that unscrupulous intermediaries impose to profit on the needs of the population.” It is recognized that the producers and the sellers are now sheltering under the law of supply and demand and therefore are authorized to set the prices they want, but others think that there should be “a limit” because consumer protection should come first.
On this topic, the commentator Talia Gonzalez said this week on the TV magazine Buenos Días, “We have to recognize that the experiment undertaken in the provinces of Havana, Artemisa and Mayabeque for the last year has enabled the expansion of supply and variety in the markets, but now there is another phenomenon: the products are there, but in many cases they are inaccessible…”
There has been an 18 percent increase in production over the previous year, but this isn’t reflected in prices
Officials in the Ministry of Agriculture affirm that there has been an 18 percent increase in production over the previous year, but this isn’t reflected in the prices because the supposed increases are destined principally to replace imports or to fulfill commitments to schools, hospitals and other social sectors, which are not always met.
The blame for the problem lies entirely in eminently subjective issues, such as the lack of control and demands, the arrears in payments or the failure to meet contracts, but there is something deeper, closely related to the nature of a system that, however much they try to update or perfect it, still has the same essence.
When a farmer realizes that 100 pounds of onions sold at 40 pesos a pound brings in the same as 800 pounds sold at 5 pesos a pound he has discovered, without needing to be an economist, sociologist or politician, that in Cuban society today for every economically favored consumer, there are eight who are not.
That is, if in Cuba there are approximately one and a quarter million people with sufficient purchasing power to absorb what little is produced, at the stated price, there will be no interest in increasing production, unless by some miracle the communist prophecy is fulfilled where work will become the first human need, beyond narrow material interests.
What a discovery! The system can’t function as long as it tries to maintain a policy of equity and justice, while aspiring to an efficient and sustainable economy. It is not that the producers have been given too much freedom, but rather not enough. At least as much as necessary so that, from the ruins of a proletariat forced into corruption to survive and a peasantry fearful of putting their prosperity on the display, an empowered and entrepreneurial middle class can emerge. But such an idea, so liberal, doesn’t fit in the straitjacket of the Guidelines of the 6th Communist Party Congress.
It is historically proven that productivity grows not only when there are the necessary technological and scientific requirements to make the performance of the productive forces more efficient, but also when there is a need to increase production and that need is backed by the purchasing power of consumers. Otherwise the hungriest countries would be the most productive but, sadly, the opposite happens.
At every hierarchical, academic and political level they know that this serpent doesn’t stop biting its tale, but in the inaccessible premises where the great decisions are taken they are afraid to recognize that unviability is a regular part of the socialist system they learned as a catechism from the Soviet manuals. They will never recognize it, unless the dissatisfied with their long faces move beyond their irritations at the prices in the market stalls, and channel their anger and frustration where it belongs.