Cuban Farmers: ‘Pretty Soon We’ll Need Dollars to Buy Rain’

The small amount of fertilizer now becoming available “remains in the hands of officials with the National Association of Small Farmers.” (Flikr/kuhnmi)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 30 March 2021 — First it was work gloves, then machetes in foreign currency and now fertilizer. News that the NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) Mixed Fertilizer Factory, in Cienfuegos, was being brought back online was accompanied by the bad news that its products will be sold, both overseas in Cuba, for hard currency.

Amid a major shortage of agricultural supplies, this month the country’s largest fertilizer manufacturer began a new trial phase to “see if it can operate at full capacity,” as reported in the local press. The manufacturer, which is a subsidiary of the Cienfuegos Chemical Company, plans to use Indian technology to convert raw material into 6,200 tons of fertilizer.

“We will spend approximately fifteen days conducting performance tests aimed at producing 55 tons an hour, which is the design capacity of this facility,” added the company’s general director, Mario Valmaseda Valle. “The Import and Export Company of the Ministry of Foreign Trade will handle marketing and distribution. It will be sold for freely convertible currency.”

It did not take long for the director’s statements to generate a backlash on social media and among farmers, who for months have been demanding access to the product, which for over a month has been virtually impossible to find at stores selling goods in Cuban pesos.

“What the government has to do is give the farmer the freedom to produce, to sell, to export, and to reduce or eliminate taxes so that he who works in the field under the hot sun does not also have to be an economist, counting his pesos to make sure he has enough to pay his workers or to buy hard currency,” says Esteban Ajete Abascal, president of the League of Independent Cuban Farmers.

“Before this recent crisis in San Juan y Martinez, in Pinar del Rio [province], the fertilizer would be delivered to warehouses at the train station. From there a fleet of trucks would deliver it to farmers, but all that’s ancient history now.”

The little that has gotten delivered “remains in the hands of officials with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), who distribute it to those who grow tobacco or other high-priority crops. Farmers who once got fifty sacks, now only get ten, two or three of which they sell to others who have not received any. As a result, no crop is receiving as much fertilizer as it needs.”

“We are talking about nitrogen fertilizer and a little bit of urea that is used to help the crops with humidity. Before the crisis a bag cost between 80 to 90 pesos but today you can only get it on the black market, where it costs 400 to 500 pesos. One bag covers about fifteen acres and has to be applied at least a couple of times during tilling,” Ajete adds.

But the compost business is not immune to mismanagement. Ajete denounces “the corrupt fertilizer distribution system” created by ANAP and cooperative farm officials. “They provide it in exchange for harvested crops at prices well below what is mandated. Instead of jacking up the price, they provide it to those who can increase the value by using it for high-demand crops such as tomatoes and taro.”

“The ones who benefit from these shady practices are those who have better land and others who are willing to snitch and work as informants for the political police,” explains Ajete.

“It’s not just about getting hard currency. Around here farmers are still defaulting on their loans. We don’t even have the money for crops that we sold to the state months ago,” laments another farm, who lives in Holguin province and belongs to the Manuel Freire Agricultural Production Cooperative.

“Here we’ve been waiting six months for them to pay us for products we delivered last year. If I had that money, I could at least think about buying dollars, depositing them in my bank account and using them to buy fertilizer. But I can’t even do that because they keep delaying payment.”

“Pretty soon we’ll need dollars to buy rain too. Every day there are more tools we need that can only be bought for a currency in which we are not paid for our crops,” explains one farmer. I don’t understand how they can expect us to produce more food for the public when they make decisions like this.”

The economist Pedro Monreal also criticized the measure, which he described an an “absurd decision” in a Twitter post. “Agricultural production depends on private farmers who have no ’interest’ in buying fertilizers for foreign currency for the simple reason that they have no foreign currency income,” said Monreal, who has previously criticized the dollarization of the agricultural sector.

Last September the Ministry of Agriculture’s  Business Logistics Group (Gelma) began doing things differently. With the launch of a sales catalog focused on the agricultural sector, the state-owned company began offering ox yokes, boots, hoes, horse shoes, wiring for fences and other supplies for sale solely in hard currency.

Gelma justified this decision on social networks, saying that, in the midst of “shortages in distribution networks, the agricultural sector requires a system that will give producers easier access to raw materials, equipment, parts, specialized accessories and other assorted items that can allow an increase in production.”

Heberto Ramos, a farmer from Alquizar, a town in Artemisa province, also does not hide his outrage. “Around here no one has family sending them dollars or has another way of getting them. What will we have to do to buy fertilizer in foreign currency?” this produce vendor asks by telephone.

It’s understandable that some imported products or machines would be sold for dollars. But it doesn’t make sense that a fertilizer made here in this country is sold for anything other than the national currency,” explains Ramos. “The organic fertilizer I use here comes from farm waste. But without a little industrial fertilizer to augment it, it’s very difficult to get a decent crop.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.