Ivan Garcia, 19 May 2016 — The raindrops tinkle on the zinc roof of a greasy hut used to store sacks of fertilizer, agricultural tools, and the various ancient contraptions that are always be a nuisance to keep in the house.
Osvaldo, the sixty-five-year-old owner of a farm southeast of Havana, calmly takes a drag on a cigarette butt, scratches his head with his thick fingers, which look like twisted meat hooks, and asks his son, “Where the hell have you left the wrench to open the water pump?” Then, once the engine has been started, he runs through the rain back to the entrance of his house.
Before answering a question as to why Cuban agriculture is incapable of supplying people with enough food, he takes a swig of coffee and rocks back and forth in his iron chair. He then tells me:
“No point in beating about the bush. It’s the government’s fault that agriculture doesn’t work. I have lost count of the number of measures and strategies the agricultural directors have drawn up. The problem is that you can’t grow a crop sitting behind an office desk. Every piece of farmland is different. The amount of sweet potatoes or beef cannot be planned from an office in Havana.”
He continues unwrapping his opinions about the black hole in the nation’s agriculture. “The land is for the peasants. If the government wants to buy everfything that’s harvested, they need to pay a fair price for it. Now they have promised to pay properly, but two or three months down the line Acopio (Cuba’s state procurement and distribution agency) and other government departments start to fall behind on their payments. In my case, they owe me 20 to 30 thousand pesos. The Havana middlemen buy your entire harvest, in cash.”
Osvaldo is aware that shortages breed speculation. “But the government needs to get real. They sell everything at very high prices to individual farmers — fuel, seed, working clothes — and the agricultural equipment is of poor quality. Also, times have changed. Now, nobody wants to work on the land. Everyone is going to Havana or Miami. And when it comes to hiring workers to gather the harvest, you have to pay at least a hundred pesos a day. That drives up the cost of what you’ve harvested. If the government gave the land to the people who are working it, in Cuba, the food that they produced would be for export”.
When you speak to private farmers, people working in co-operatives or tenants, their opinions vary, but most of them believe that, to increase the harvests, you have to first create appropriate living and working conditions.
“I lost about a hundred pounds of bananas and sweet potatoes because Acopio couldn’t provide enough transport,” observes a farmer with a credit and service cooperative, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s a joke. They have some honest people but most of the officials there are corrupt.”
When Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, he began applying countless forms of production management to Cuban agriculture, from huge state farms and cooperatives to land leases.
But harvests did not increase. Bureaucrats always come up with excuses to explain the shortfalls. They blame the unchecked greed of middlemen, hurricanes, rain or drought.
Though intended to alleviate the deficit, targeted price controls quickly generate even greater shortages instead. But there could be other reasons as well. Economist Juan Triana Cordoví cannot be accused of being of a dissident. But in his article “Price Caps”, published in On Cuba Magazine, Triana tries to find answers to the riddle. For this economist, prices controls are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are other explanations. According to Triana, if you compare produce production in 2005 to that of 2009, you will find that harvests were, on average, was 15% smaller. With respect to potatoes, the drop was 50%. In the case of vegetables, the average rate of growth in this same period did not exceed 1% while tomato production fell 30%.
In 2009, 34,558 hectares of produce were planted (4,245 of which were potatoes), while only 16,494 hectares were planted in 2014 (596 of which were potatoes). In short, in 2009 — the latest year for which data is available — there was 50% less produce and 14% less potatoes planted. In 2009, 32,174 hectares were planted while in 2014 only 21,397 hectares were planted. This amounts to 66% of what had been planted just five years earlier.
Less acreage under cultivation, lower yields, increased demand, higher costs… “What else can we expect but for prices to go up?” asks Triana.
But the government is only thinking in the short term. Faced with complaints from millions of its citizens, the solution is a home remedy to relieve the pain while it continues to postpone the radical solution that Cuban agriculture needs.
Average Cubans approve of the new measures the state has taken to cap prices and close El Trigal wholesale market south of Havana. On May 13 Martí Noticias toured fifteen produce markets — some state-run; some private, leased or cooperative operations.
In the markets with price controls, the chalkboards indicated nine to fifteen items for sale. Tomatoes, on average, cost 2 pesos per pound. Guava was priced at 1.5 to 3 pesos, a banana went for 2 pesos, and cassava and sweet potato sold for 1 peso per pound.
The privately-run markets had more variety, were cleaner and provided better quality, though the prices were twice as high. For example, two Caney mangoes cost 30 pesos while a six-pound melon went for 25 pesos.
Osvaldo, the peasant quoted above, believes that price controls will not increase farm production. And he is sticking to his theory: “When the land belongs to the peasants, and they are allowed to import and export without having to rely on the state, there will be more than enough food,” he says.
In no country with an autocratic government — whether it be Vietnam, China or the former Soviet Union — did state-control of the land work. Cuba is hardly an exception.
Translated by GH