Food Prices Rise Despite Price Caps / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

The Egido Street market still displays prices based on supply and demand. (14ymedio)
The Egido Street market still displays prices based on supply and demand. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 24 November 2016 — The seller doesn’t even need to advertise his wares. He just stands at a corner with several strings of onions and buyers crowd around him. Six months after the imposition of price caps for more than twenty farm products, shortages and the high cost of food continue to mark Cubans’ daily lives.

The measure, approved in May of this year, for state markets and those managed by cooperatives, regulates the prices of 23 products, to avoid “the enrichment of intermediaries.” In practice, however, this government decision had not managed to curb rising prices, which are expected to reach historic highs by the end of the year.

At the intersection of 19th and B Streets, in the Vedado neighborhood, one market has earned the epithet of “the rich people’s market.” Some also call it “the museum,” because it’s “look but don’t touch,” due to its high prices. The place has a variety of products far beyond the average offered by markets across the island.

The capped process still have not yet reached these kinds of markets, where private producers sell their merchandise. A pound of boneless pork has varied between 40 and 50 Cuban pesos for months, two days’ salary for an engineer. “We sell the meat here depending on how it comes to us,” explains Yulian Sanchez, the market’s administrator.

Opinions among customers are divided on the government’s measure. “There’s no one here who eats beef or even cracklings,” an old woman complained this Tuesday at 19th and B, while looking for oregano to cook some beans. “These prices are unthinkable for people,” she said, expressing her support for price caps on all the markets of this type.

Other customers fear a possible extension of price regulations. “What will happen is that the best things will disappear,” says Roberto, a self-employed workers who regularly buys fruit at 19th and B. “The minute they capped prices, onion disappeared,” he said.

Among the foods with regular prices are also beans, taro, cassava, bananas, yucca, sweet potatoes, lettuce and pumpkin. In markets where price controls are already in place, products cannot be sold for more than the prices established in a resolution of the Ministry of Finance and Prices.

An army of inspectors verifies that the stands display the regulated prices and apply fines to offenders that can range from 100 to 700 Cuban pesos.

A few yards from Havana’s Capitol building, the Egido street market still displays prices based on supply and demand. Four tomatoes can cost 50 Cuban pesos, a third of the monthly pension of Oscar Villanueva, a retired construction worker looking over the market stalls on Tuesday.

“With Christmas and New Years it is normal to raise prices, but since these are already quite high, we have to prepare for the worst,” he says.

Anxiety in anticipation of these holidays is apparent among the stands of the central market. The government has informed the sellers that as of this coming January there will be a system of price regulation for several products.

“This is the only place where you can find a variety of fruit. If they cap the prices it will be like the others,” says Villanueva.

Board with prices for the day's offerings in the EJT Market at 17th Street and K, in Havana. (14ymedio)
Board with prices for the day’s offerings in the EJT Market at 17th Street and K, in Havana. (14ymedio)

The quality of the products at the Youth Labor Army (EJT) market at 17th and K, run by the Armed Forces, is very different from “the rich people’s market,” a distant relative of the Egido Street market.

Many consumers agree that price caps are often at odds with the quality of products. “The fruits they sell are always green and the root vegetables are covered with dirt,” says a regular customer of the market in Vedado. The woman recognizes, however, that the prices in other markets “can’t go on like this, because soon we’ll need a wheelbarrow full of money to buy food for a week.”

“Now they have one-thousand peso notes to fix that problem,” a nearby vendor jokes with the woman.

The hopes of many are pinned on the reopening of El Trigal market in January, the only agricultural wholesale market in al of Havana, which in the middle of this year was closed for “irregularities” in its operation. But it is still unknown if the government will maintain the price caps, sustain supplies in the market stalls, and improve the quality of the offerings.