General Raúl Castro acknowledges that beans are more important than canons. For the green khaki overlords food is a matter of national security.
Since taking power on July 31, 2006, Castro II has tried to revitalize agricultural production. But, so far, nothing. The efforts of the enormous and inefficient Ministry of Agriculture have not allowed people to dine on meat, eat malanga*, or purchase fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.
Nothing has come of leasing out the land to increase harvests. Nor of paying three pesos for every liter of milk. Nor of raising the prices paid to private farmers. It is a structural problem. Never, not even when the former Soviet Union spent billions of rubles to subsidize the Cuban economy, has anyone been able to resolve the issue of food production.
With some regularity Fidel Castro liked to remind us that he was an expert in the field of agro-technology. Since the early years of the revolution he has invested time and resources to increase agricultural and livestock production.
In France he looked to livestock experts like André Voisin. He wanted the Frenchman to apply his thesis of rational grazing to the tropics. The then young and arrogant comandante assured Cuba that it would harvest so much malanga that it would be able to export it.
He said the same thing about citrus. In Valle de la Picadura on the outskirts of Havana the guerrilla leader designed immense air-conditioned dairies where he dedicated himself to crossbreeding livestock to obtain superior breeds which might provide greater amounts of beef and milk.
I do not believe any president in the world has been so intimately involved with the problem of food production is his country, or with such paltry results.
He planted coffee throughout the island. He introduced new and more resistant varieties of sugar cane. He planted strawberries, peaches and apples in a mountainous area of Sancti Spiritus province that had a special microclimate.
In spite of his successive failures, Castro never quit. In the 1990s, without the subsidy from Moscow, he established fifty agricultural camps to plant a strain of bananas called “microjet.” He was so excited with the abundance of bananas that he ordered cookbooks to be printed so that housewives might learn to prepare new recipes.
One night he asked his consultants to ship some McDonald’s hamburgers to him by air. He wanted to compare them with some burgers he had created and christened “Zas.” After trying the gringo hamburgers, he declared the Cuban versions better. The Zas burgers were sold in cafes that were converted into hamburger restaurants, two per person.
He acquired some freezers from Argentina. Once in Cuba they were used to manufacture non-dairy ice cream whose flavors were derived from lemon, orange and grapefruit concentrates. He then said that the citrus products would provide a person’s daily recommended dose of vitamin C. Such was his passion for farming and livestock that he produced beans, cattle and buffalo, as well as cheese and ice cream products on his vast estate known as Zone0.
But the end result was that he destroyed the nation’s sugar industry. If there was one thing Cubans knew how to do, it was how to grow cane and produce sugar. The production of the sweet granule is now comparable to what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Cuba has gone from being “the world’s sugar bowl” to be being an importer of sugar.
The number of heads of cattle has dropped to a minimum. Here’s a fact for you: More cattle are slaughtered on Cuban fields than in state slaughterhouses. All the projects of the comandante end in farce. Today we have neither cows nor milk, nor coffee, nor bananas, nor beef, nor fish or shellfish.
His brother Raúl knows that the food issue is a time bomb. If the regime could stuff the grocery store shelves, it would be able to more comfortably govern a population whose bellies were full. But a cudgel cannot coax crops from the soil. Cuba spends almost $500 million annually to purchase food. Castro II’s plan is to reduce imports.
Furthermore, the measures put in place are incomplete. Leasing out land for ten years and prohibiting someone who works the land from building a home on it is utter stupidity. Ideally, the land would be leased for ninety years or more, and farmers would be allowed to build houses on it.
If the regime wants to significantly reduce prices, it should close state distribution facilities. Theft and fraud in these facilities have made some people millionaires. Raúl Castro himself acknowledges that embezzlement at Havana’s agricultural markets totals 12 million pesos.
The ludicrous prices the state pays for products does not provide farmers with an incentive to increase production. Those who work the land prefer to sell what they produce to private middlemen who offer them better prices.
A private farmer must sell80% of his harvest to the state. If this figure were between 20 and 25%, and producers could commercialize their surpluses, the exorbitant prices of meat, fruits and vegetables would fall.
Another hurdle is the inability of owners to sell their animals. They may only do so to the state, which pays less than 10 convertible pesos ($11) per cow. The solution is to cut the animal’s throat and pretend it was an accident. Or to arrange with a slaughterer to sacrifice the animals at night and then report them as having been stolen.
Absurd laws lead to pitfalls. If the government were to create wholesale markets, the prices for food prepared and sold by private sector workers would fall. Five years ago a pizza cost 5 to 7 pesos in the capital. Now the cheapest one costs between 12 to 15 pesos. A glass of juice that used to cost two pesos has risen to three. A small snack from one peso to two. Meanwhile, workers’ salaries remain frozen in time.
General Castro knows that the food shortage is like a sleeping volcano. It it were to erupt one day, it could blow the regime to pieces.
There is no more effective opposition than the significant and growing segment of the population that has no money, the people who eat little and poorly. In an attempt to halt the discontent and fill the empty pots, Castro II has tried to introduce a series of measures to raise food production while lowering its cost.
So far, it has not worked. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro watches events unfold from his perch in political retirement. He assures us that he is looking into a plant called the moringa that will, once and for all, solve the nation’s food problems. Believe me, this is no joke.
*Translator’s note: A subsistence crop which produces starchy cormels similar in size to potatoes and cooked in similar ways.
August 6 2012