Highway Checkpoints Choke Off Havana’s Produce Markets

Checkpoints set up along highways into the capital have led to short supplies at privately run stores. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, September 7, 2020 — Empty stalls, closed markets and long faces were common sights this weekend around several stores selling farm products in Havana. Checkpoints set up along highways into the capital have led to short supplies at privately run businesses and growing resentment among workers in the informal market.

The new measures, which took effect on September 1, are an effort to halt the spread of Covid-19 in the city. Vehicular traffic, with some exceptions, is banned from 7:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m., the period when most products normally enter the capital and just before they go on sale.

Documents are also being reviewed more thoroughly, making it difficult for independent, unlicensed drivers to move freely. The situation is affecting privately run markets and cooperatives, which have seen their stocks dwindle in the past week. Among those affected is the market on 19th and B streets in Havana’s Vedado district. Known locally as the “boutique of farmers markets” due to its wide selection and high prices, its shelves were half empty on Saturday. The peeled and chopped produce it normally sells, items which are in high demand from consumers, were not available.

Bernardo has been in the business of  delivering fruits and vegetables to Havana for two decades from his base in nearby Güira de Melena, one of the most important agricultural regions of Artemisa province. “They took away all the produce I was supposed to deliver last week and fined me,” he tells 14ymedio.

“The told me I’m contributing to the spread of the epidemic because I don’t have permission to enter Havana,” says the driver. “The ones who do manage to get in are drivers of state-owned trucks and those licensed by Acopio (a state entity). Right now freelance drivers are ’under fire’ and I am not going to risk losing my truck.”

The operations are not just restricting the legal flow of goods into Havana. They are also having an effect the informal pipeline of foodstuffs that secretly supplies the city. Some of these products end up in privately owned restaurant kitchens, farmers markets and the black market.

On Saturday many retail markets in Central Havana were closed or had only a couple of items for sale. (14ymedio)

In response to growing complaints over the collateral damage the measures are having on produce markets, police and transportation officials announced during an interview on Canal Havana that there are no restrictions whatsoever on vehicles carrying agricultural products entering the city but merchants disagree.

“I have not been able to open today because I don’t have anything to sell and don’t know when I will be able to start up again. They’re not letting anything through,” says a vendor who runs a small kiosk that until recently had a wide selection of produce. According to this merchant, roads are only open to transport vehicles that supply state-owned markets and those run by the Youth Labor Army.

The effect is clearly evident in Centro Habana, one of the capital’s most densely populated districts. On Saturday many retail markets in the area were closed or had only a couple of items for sale. Bananas and unripe avocados were among the few available items.

“Let’s go elsewhere. They only have pumpkins here,” a discouraged woman tells her husband before leaving a market in Cayo Hueso. A few steps away the couple finds that a place on the corner of Zanja and Oquendo streets is not even serving customers. “We’re not going to open until we get a shipment”, says a worker in answer to persistent questions from those who approach the closed door.

On San Rafael Street, one of the best stocked markets in the city has also been seriously affected. The store on the corner of Oquenda and San Lazaro only has packages of sliced sweet potato. “How and why did this happen? Did Hurricane Laura return?” asks a customer ironically. Behind him others keep coming, hoping to find something more than empty shelves.


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