Iván García, Havana, December 16, 2019 – I’ll introduce him to you. His name is Gustavo Luis Rodríguez Rollero. He was born on December 21, 1963 in the town of Iguará, Yaguajay municipality, Sancti Spíritus province, about 224 miles east of Havana.
According to EcuRed, the Cuban digital encyclopedia, Rollero was, as they say, a platoon leader of motorized infantry in the armed forces. Once discharged from the army, he worked as an agricultural technician, brigade chief, agricultural deputy director and director of an agro-industrial complex in Ranchuelo, Villa Clara. He later became a provincial delegate of the Ministry of Agriculture and vice minister in that ministry. Afterward, deputy minister of the Ministry of Sugar, where he became first deputy minister. In June 2010 he reached the top and was appointed Minister of Agriculture, a promotion that would be ratified in July 2018 by the National Assembly of People’s Power.
His biography, like that of other officials of the Communist Party of Cuba, is unblemished. But no expert on the island can explain what his merits are that have allowed him to remain in office for nine years, despite the fact that since 2013 the statistics in the agricultural sector have plummeted.
If you ask people on the street who the most unpopular minister in the country is, they will first point to Rollero, the one from Agriculture. In second place to Eduardo Rodríguez, of Transport, but since he was appointed in January of this year, he is not as well known as the previous one, Adel Yzquierdo, who spent four years at the head of MITRANS.
Eduardo, now retired, worked for 55 years in the old Toledo plant, located in Marianao, west of Havana. He recalls that in 2000, when Fidel Castro ordered the restructuring of the sugar industry (a restructuring that was called Tarea Álvaro Reinoso) more than a hundred sugar mills were closed, including Toledo, the only one in the capital, which had been renamed by the revolution “Manuel Martínez Prieto,” after a union leader from that area assassinated in 1958 by the Batista dictatorship.
“Screw by screw, the entire plant was disassembled. The dismantling allowed neighboring residents to take advantage and steal. MINAZ (Sugar Ministry) officials passed through central Toledo promising villas and castles. But the biggest liar was Rollero. He showed up one day, looking like a student at Ñico López (Communist Party high school), assuring that an industry was going to be set up to process alcohol and take advantage of the by-products of sugar cane. He said that the production was going to be exported. “It was all a lie,”recalls Eduardo,” who at 72 sells brown sugar coquitos, allowing him to earn a few pesos and supplement his pension, which is equivalent to twelve dollars a month.
It is well-known that disinformation is habitual among high officials of the Castro regime. Some are more disinformed than others. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, for example, was unaware that Cuban doctors who deserted their missions were prohibited from visiting their homeland. He also didn’t know that almost a hundred dissidents and independent journalists are “regulated” and cannot travel abroad, despite having no criminal charges against them.
In a meeting with Cuban émigrés residing in Ireland last October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel asserted that the government did not repress those who thought differently. In a country where lying has become a way of life, the staging, the deluge of hollow slogans, and the media barrage of ideological content slanted and manipulated by experts controlled by state media is understandable.
Right now, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero is the perfect target for ordinary people. A few weeks ago, he appeared on the national television news, surrounded by a mountain of papers. While he was adjusting his glasses, he asserted that in a meeting of ministers with President Díaz-Canel, it had been said that “the goal of each Cuban eating 30 pounds per month of fruit, vegetables, and meat” was being fulfilled. And he claimed that he was “working to guarantee 5 kilograms of animal protein per capita per month.”
Mirta, a housewife, regularly watches television news. “The lies that the officials tell on TV raise my blood pressure. But I’m a masochist and I still watch the news, especially the ’estelar’, as they call one at 8 pm. The one who lies the most is Rollero. The guy rolls longer than a movie. Thirty pounds of fruits and vegetables and five kilograms of meat? Don’t make me laugh, Mr. Minister,” says Mirta, and she mentions the situation in which Havana’s grocery stores find themselves:
“In December, the price of pork meat continued to rise in Havana. A pound of boneless pork doesn’t fall below 50 or 60 pesos. Probably for the last week of the year it will cost even more. In state agricultural markets there’s nothing, only bananas, sweet potatoes, yuccas and black beans, no tomatoes or onions. Sometimes fruits, dried sweet oranges – sour and juiceless – and some miniature pineapples that, after you remove the peel, barely give two glasses of juice. It’s true that there are Cubans who are able to eat 30 pounds of food per month, vegetables and fruits and 5 kilograms of chicken, pork or mutton. What Rollero’s lying face doesn’t say is the amount of money those people spend every month to be able to consume these products.”
Diario Las Américas toured several state agromarkets in Havana. The shortage is striking. Usually just five or six agricultural products, almost always bananas, yuccas, sweet potatoes, black and red beans.
Private sellers have a better selection, but prices are through the roof: a pound of tomatoes is 20 to 25 pesos; a pound of onions 30 to 40 pesos; a cabbage, 15 to 20 pesos; a lemon 7 or 8 pesos; and a pound of chickpeas, 25 pesos; guava, 8 to 10 pesos per pound; a ripe pineapple, 15 or 20 pesos; a mamey, 25 pesos; a four-pound melon, 40 pesos, at ten pesos a pound; and a whole papaya can cost more than 50 pesos.
Liliana and her husband, private entrepreneurs, say that they try to keep the menu as healthy as possible. “But the amount of money we spend is tremendous,” says Liliana and shows a notebook where she records the expenses.
“Every month we spend more than two thousand pesos, about 80 dollars, just on fruits, vegetables, food and beans. And between 250 and 300 Cuban convertible pesos [CUC – a currency that has been taken out circulation] on beef, chicken, fish, cheese, yogurt, spaghetti and tomato puree, among other foods from the foreign exchange markets. When you add it up, you get 9 to 10 thousand pesos a month, just so that three people, my husband, our daughter and I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner. I pray every day not to get sick and be unable to work, because if we lack the money we’re not going to be in the black.”
For six decades, the number one priority of Cuban families has been to be able to prepare one or two hot meals at home seven days a week. But as the “Revolution has advanced,” on an island with a tropical climate, it is incredibly increasingly complex, difficult, and expensive to get food in Cuba.
Ordinary people blame the government and in particular the Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, for scarcities, shortages, poor quality, and high prices. And for firing off volleys of lies.
Translated by Tomás A.