‘Inspectors Monitor the Sale of Tomatoes in Cuba as if They Were Lobster Tails’

The 19th and B market, in El Vedado, is almost entirely privately managed and is governed by the law of supply and demand. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 7 November 2022 — What is expected this season, when temperatures begin to fall in Cuba, is that tomatoes will reach the markets. However, this year, the fruit is absent from many agricultural stands in Havana. The reason is the daily police raids, launched recently, against high prices, and the decision of merchants to withdraw the product so as not to sell at a loss.

“There is no one selling tomatoes in this market,” said a young man this Sunday morning. He manages one of the stands at the Juvenile Labor Army (EJT) premises on Tulipán Street, in Nuevo Vedado. “We have been told that we can’t sell them for more than 200 pesos per pound, and that amount doesn’t give us a good profit,” he adds, speaking to 14ymedio.

This weekend, in the different kiosks located in the EJT market, you could see burro bananas, cabbages, sweet potatoes and leeks, but not the characteristic red color of the tomatoes needed to make a tasty salad. “That product is candela. You get a fine right away,” the young man warned.

“To be able to recover the investment, a tomato must be sold right now at 250 to 270 pesos a pound,” says Jorge, a 38-year-old habanero who transports goods from the area of Güira de Melena and Alquízar, in the province of Artemisa, to the 19th and B market in El Vedado. “Below that price I would now be working at a loss.”

The El Vedado market, known for its wide variety of products and high prices, is almost entirely privately managed and is governed by the law of supply and demand. An avocado at 100 pesos, a pound of small onions at 350, and cucumber at 80, turn a modest purchase in that market into a four-figure bill.

“They come here to try to pressure us to lower prices, but they are the same ones who later sell you beer in a state restaurant for more than 180 pesos,” Jorge says. “For us everything has become more expensive, too, from the fuel that we get ’on the left’ to the price that the farmer puts on his harvest.”

“What people are doing is that they prefer not to bring some products for sale here in the market,” he explains to this newspaper. “If through digital sites, where they buy from abroad for their family in Cuba, a product can be sold at a more reasonable price for us, what need is there to look for a fine by bringing the merchandise here?”

In on-line sites aimed at emigrants, a pound of tomatoes is around 4 dollars, almost 500 pesos at the official exchange rate. Deliveries are made directly to homes, and the customer pays online with their credit or debit card. “You get rid of the inspectors, the police and having to hide the product every time they warn you of a raid,” Jorge explains. “If it continues like this, the only ones who will be able to eat a tomato salad will be those who have family in Miami.”

In markets such as the EJT, administered by the military, the pressures on merchants are greater. “It’s not that we have been banned from selling tomatoes, but they might as well have done so, because they want to force us to keep the price low; but on the other hand when asked if prices are capped, they tell you that no, it’s not that, it’s part of a battle against illegalities,” explains the intermediary.

For the official press, it’s not a question of recovering investments but of speculating. “In other words: it’s about obtaining, by all those involved in the chain, logical profit margins, from fair and reasonable sales prices, contrary to those who, with legal status or not, monopolize the productions, speculate and fleece the public without a minimum of modesty,” the official State newspaper Granma pronounced this Sunday.

“It’s urgent to close all loopholes to the flight of products to illicit destinations, and call to account those who participate directly in selling, calling themselves markets, plazas, points of sale, pushcarts or street vendors,” threatened the official organ of the Communist Party.

The offensive also extends to sellers who, like Dayron, offer their goods on a tricycle in some corner of Havana. “Last week I was fined 6,000 pesos that I haven’t yet been able to pay. The inspector told me that I couldn’t sell chopped onion at 1,000 pesos or tomatoes at 220, as I was doing.”

With his point of sale, Dayron travels through some parts of the Los Sitios neighborhood. “Now you have to sell a tomato as if it were a lobster tail. Carefully watching that an inspector or policeman doesn’t approach,” the man says. “I prefer that they spoil at home and my wife has to turn them into puree, but at 150 or 180 pesos a pound, I won’t be able to to sell them.”

And he concludes: “That’s what they did with pork: they began to impose fines on the sellers, and the result was that pork was lost from the markets. Now it’s the tomato’s time, and tomorrow the time will come for something else, the malanga or the cucumber; it makes no difference, because they just want to control everything.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


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