14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 13 March 2019 — Rebaptized as “Cuban chewing gum” because of its popularity, it is a constant companion in the face of the long lines at the bus stops, the days of agricultural ‘mobilizations,’ or the poor rations in prisons. The peanut, for decades, has remained the flagship product of the informal market, it has managed to survive the iron-fist nationalization to which it was subjected and today, when it is permitted to sell it from private hands, the product resurfaces but not without certain difficulties.
After the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive, when all the small businesses remaining in private hands were nationalized, few foods continued to be available outside the state apparatus and the rationed market. This legume continued to survive and continued to be sold on the black market from the hands of roving sellers until 2008, when with the Raulist reforms of the private sector, a good part of its sellers and producers were legalized.
The national tradition of consuming peanuts, embodied in the famous musical “maní, manisero se va” (peanuts, peanut seller goes), had to go largely underground. In a whisper, only showing a few paper cones while keeping the rest safely stored in a bag, merchandise was offered avoiding the eyes of inspectors and police.
“I’ve been sowing peanuts for almost 30 years,” Leopoldo tells this daily. He is a farmer in the Candelaria area who claims to have “gone through everything” with this crop. “It takes a lot of work and we have to be very attentive to pests but later it is sold at a very good price to nougat producers,” he says.
Soil preparation is vital for good peanut production and it should not be planted in stony areas. Its cultivation requires abundant water during germination, growth and flowering, but when it is time for the fruits to ripen they may have already become scarce.
“I have all my land destined for peanuts, but now I also grow flowers and beans.”
Leopoldo owns his land, which allows him to decide what type of product to sow, in contrast to the cooperative members and those who lease their land from the State. The State controls the products that must be harvested in each region and the farmers have to accept the list of priorities designed by the Ministry of Agriculture.
“In this area, most people who have leased land have to plant beans and vegetables to sell to the State,” says Leopoldo. “I went for the peanut because I can sell it directly, it’s in high demand all year and right now it has gone up a lot of price.”
“It is a product that does very well here and it is easy to preserve the seeds, but the drying process in the field has its complexities and it is a very important moment when the whole harvest can be spoiled,” adds the farmer. “Only when it is well dried is it separated from the bush to prevent it from being damp and having a fungus.”
Among the main risks are insects and worms, which feed on leaves. They also produce diseases such as the cercosporiosis fungus, blue mold and the so-called leaf spot, which can spoil an entire harvest, something that often happens with either excess moisture or with little availability of water at the time of initial growth.
In Havana markets one pound of peanuts currently costs between 20 and 24 CUP, the daily salary of a professional. However, few producers of nougat or of the little paper cones it is sold in by street vendors buy it from the stands in these markets, rather they are in direct contact with the producer.
The harvester sells peanuts at between 8 and 10 CUP per pound to the food producer who comes to the farm to get the crop. If the farmer is responsible to deliver the peanuts, he can ask for a little more. The price is unusual. Few agricultural products, with the exception of beans and pork, are sold at around 10 pesos per pound directly from the field.
“Once a month I go to the area of San Antonio de los Baños, where for years I have an agreement with a farmer to buy several kilograms,” says Marcial, a nougat producer who offers his merchandise to sellers in the areas of Centro Habana and Cerro. “My entire house smells like peanuts because we entered this business in 1992 and we have not left it.”
From those early years, Marcial recalls that “everything was illegal” and his wife and daughters sold the cones and nougats very quietly. “One day they confiscated all the production for a week, we were taking it to the house of a cousin who supplied other traveling vendors, when the police stopped us.”
“In those years we cooked at home with the oil we extracted from the peanuts, and we even used it as a skin cream,” he recalls.
Now, Marcial has a street vendor license and his wife has another license to make prepared foods, and they have expanded the products they make and distribute. “We have the typical ground peanut nougat, the another that many people like and we have added one similar to nougat with almonds, but with peanuts, that is in high demand at the end of the year and around other festive dates.” A weak point is “the supply of sugar, which is not stable, but we have also added products with honey to the list of what we sell .”
Family earnings range between 4,000 and 5,000 CUP per month, discounting the raw material and license payments, five times more than Marcial and his wife would earn together as engineers in a state company, which is what they were doing when they met more than 40 years ago.
The dream of Marcial’s family is to launch their own brand of nougat to the market, something that other entrepreneurs have been able to do, and even to register their brand and their recipes in the Cuban Office of Industrial Property (OCPI). But the tenacious manisero (peanut seller) thinks that he still falls short of that.
“The supply is not very stable because it depends on many things, the climate, the state controls on the producers, the transportation and the police searches on the road, having the plastic to wrap them in, in short it is an obstacle course.” Now he is designing a logo for his offerings and trying to add new combinations.
Although many vendors, such as Marcial, have legalized their activity in recent years, the peanut sector remains mired in illegality.
“Most of the peanuts that are bought in the streets are still in the hands of informal sellers, who do not have a license,” says an employee of the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) who preferred anonymity. “But right now the police do little to control them because many are elderly, disabled or with serious economic problems.”
“It’s a lost case because if you fine or stop all the peanut vendors in Cuba they wouldn’t be able to pay the fines and the police stations would be full.”
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