The Foundations of the Unproductivity of Cuban Agriculture

Vietnamese technicians in Sancti Spíritus. (Granma/Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Elías Amor Bravo, Economist, 28 October 2023 — We’re back to where we started. Talking for the sake of talking. Now the regime wants to tell us how to bring agricultural products from the field to the table. And the talking has been done by none other than the Minister of Agriculture, Ydael Pérez Brito, the author of the “63 measures” that were going to make the Cuban agricultural sector take off, and you can already see how that’s going.

And as if it were a deja vu, which does not stop happening, the minister appeared on State TV on the Roundtable program — in which difficult questions are never asked to the powerful – to talk about the main challenges of the sector, the inadequacies and the main work actions. And by the way, to point out the key to bringing agricultural products from the field to the table.

Of course, as always happens, taking responsibility for the obvious failures is not part of the agenda for Cuban communist leaders. The minister said from the first moment that “one of the main factors impacting the sector’s performance is the global crisis resulting from COVID-19.” Totally false. The crisis began before COVID-19, and unlike what happened in other countries, it has continued after the disease was overcome, even worsened.

The crisis has its origin in the absurd so-called Ordering Task* and more recently, in Putin’s atrocious war in Ukraine with its impact on world markets, especially food, raw materials and intermediate goods. Cuban communists are trapped in their lies.

Pérez said that “corn used as animal feed has increased its value by 167%, soybean flour by 151%, monocalcium phosphate by 258% and methionine by 162%. Similarly, fertilizers and urea have seen a 300% increase in their prices, and other chemical herbicides and pesticides have doubled and tripled their prices.”

He is right about this, but those same price increases have impacted the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Panama and the rest of Latin American countries, and none of them lack food. There is something about Cuba’s production that turns the Island into a disastrous economy, where the agricultural sector is unable to meet the food needs of the population.

So, using any justification such as climate change to evade responsibility, Pérez cited migration from the countryside to the city as a factor that has a negative impact on the sector. And in that sense, he again gave half-truths, because it’s true that only 15% of the Cuban population lives in the countryside, but the employment of the sector is close to 20% with an average agricultural productivity of 20% of the total. A disaster.

Then, in this same argument, he blamed the blockade for the lack of availability of funding, and pointed out that “only 40% of the required diesel fuel, 4% of fertilizers and 20% of animal feed have been acquired.” Another falsehood. If the regime does not achieve financing, it is not because of the blockade, but because of its non-payment of debt, which prevents access to international markets. When will they realize Fidel Castro’s terrible inheritance as a debt evader?

From there, Pérez stressed “the need to increase the areas planted; however, this would require a greater use of fuels and people dedicated to the activity” that are not available, so they recommence in that vicious circle that they don’t know how to get out of, or do not want to.

And the rest of the program was a continuous narrative of misfortunes that could only lead viewers to a single conclusion: these people are not going to solve anything. For example, referring to the poultry program, Pérez Brito said that, in the best moments, “it was possible to have 8 million chickens” (without indicating when), but “today we only have an average of 2.9 or 3 million laying hens,” a decrease caused by the fact that vaccines could not be purchased and “the replacement program was stopped, which has caused us to be working with a very high percentage of aging chickens.”

And for this, they are “replacing 300,000 chickens per month and must end the year with a million replaced,” and he said again that “the program has had many obstacles with food, especially with soy and corn, whose prices have increased. As a result, production has decreased from 5 million per day in 2020 to 2.2 million. This only allows us to supply the current 5 eggs in the standardized family basket” [allocated through the ration system]. In short, the instability in the feed causes a decrease in the efficiency of the laying. And that’s why eggs have disappeared from the basic basket or are sold at very high prices.

Regarding the situation of the pig program in the country, the minister said that of a total pork production of 199,700 tons in 2017, the figures fell in 2022 to only 16,500 tons of production. An absolutely unpresentable collapse that has no possible explanation.

Again, the disaster occurred because there was less food for the pigs, which reduced the number of breeders from 96,200 in 2018 to 35,892 last year, a drop of nearly two-thirds, and now the recovery of this program is expected by increasing the planting and harvesting of animal feed in the country, as well as enhancing the planting of soybeans and a harvesting program to guarantee part of the necessary protein. In other words, things will take a long time.

Meanwhile, the regime is entertained by the recovery of the Multiplier Centers and Breeding Units and continues with the delivery of land for the production of pig feed “to produce 60% of the raw material.” They do not understand that the delivery of land for rent is not the solution, but rather a legal framework of private property rights for the land.

At this point, the minister surprised the audience when he said “that the country has relatively new infrastructure for the production of grains” and specifically, for rice: “More than 300,000 tons were produced in the country.” But then, as a result of the lack of inputs, such as fertilizers, production fell to 10%. So with less rice, he had to depend on external donations.

The minister then said that “we have to plant rice” because of the high cost in the international market, and many traditional producers have stopped exporting to meet the national demand, which makes it very difficult to supply abroad. This happens to Cuba, because other countries that import rice do not have these difficulties; they have financing and credit to do so. As always, communist ministers remain on the threshold of the problems.

In the case of beans, he said that more than 50,000 tons were delivered for the basic basket despite the lack of inputs to combat pests and other natural causes that caused a 9% decrease in production compared to 2016. He also quoted, with respect to corn in this case, a much greater drop of 30% in production.

To reverse this situation, the minister proposes ideas such as increasing the area under irrigation dedicated to grains by 35%, increasing yield using more productive varieties and hybrids and working with foreign investment and collaborative projects to acquire financing. As always, arriving late to the problem with a state interventionism that leads nowhere.

With regard to coffee production, the minister said that the demand to meet the basic basket and domestic consumption is 24,000 tons, but in 2023 the production will be about 9,000 tons, which represents only 38% of the demand. Looking out to a 2030 horizon, the situation will not improve significantly, so there will still be a lack of coffee. Cuban communists still believe in the “strengthening of the coffee program in the plains.”

And at this point, the minister spoke of the miraculous “Food Sovereignty and Nutritional Education Plan of Cuba,” according to him, “a national platform to achieve full sovereign food security, as a strategic contribution to national security.”

To this end, the law of the same name proposes an agri-food development of Cuba, based on projections for the development of food production in the socio-economic cultural field, from processing and marketing to the final consumer. In other words, more of the same, as usual. Passing over the problems, without getting into them.

But in addition, it is alarming that the minister says that “we must make a change in agriculture, in the way we manage it, taking into account the current economic conditions of the country and also the climatic conditions.” Because no one has any illusions. Nothing about strengthening the private sector and entrepreneurship.

The minister wants to change the management to promote “the relationship of the municipality, the province and the nation, which are as a whole the agricultural system, so that production is at the local level and the importing matrix is changed, for security and sovereignty.” A commitment to a scale of production that does not take advantage of increasing returns at scale and impedes any possible increase in productivity in the medium and long term.

Food sovereignty is not achieved in this way, one which only relies on failed structures of the communist model, such as the OSDE [Superior Business Management Organization] of agriculture and the business system in the sector, whose improvement only involves decapitalizing them with fewer employees and activity. The same can be pointed out for the companies served by the municipal governments, which is nothing more than hiding the state in the municipal.

Cubans will have to continue waiting for that sovereignty and food security, because the path chosen does not serve to advance the nation’s ability to produce, as the minister said, “food in a sustainable way and give the entire population access to sufficient, diverse, balanced, nutritious, safe and healthy food, reducing dependence on external means and inputs, with respect for cultural diversity and environmental responsibility.” That will continue to be unattainable if production conditions do not change.

During his long appearance on the Roundtable, the Minister of Agriculture dedicated time to saying that “in addition to the State and the business structure, another of the backbones of the agricultural system is the producer,” and he pointed out what seems evident, that “the whole system revolves around him” so that “ways must be found for him to develop and feel more stimulated, so that the amount in the Cuban fields increases.”

The minister must be made aware that these ways are well known and that if he wants to check, he just has to go to Vietnam and ask about the Doi Moi, where he will find that producers don’t have to be “motivated, trained, expand their capacities or be advised and change mentalities.”

All that is a waste of time. What producers want is to own the land they work so that any improvement they make on it allows them to earn money from their commercialization or expansion. The path is the consolidation of a legal framework of private property rights. There is no alternative.

The solution of putting the municipality into production, or developing it in a more organic way by applying differences between the territories, only makes sense if the producers manage to appropriate the income they generate.

Therefore, the projects that the regime is managing, such as the food program, with the development of the extra-dense banana, under the principles of science and innovation imposed by Díaz-Canel’s doctoral thesis, still do not give practical results, and the young people of the country do not want to spend their lives in the agricultural sector.

To attract young people to the countryside, it is not enough to help them, give them credits, accompany them, or give priority to the best. The key remains in land ownership, especially for young people, who with a longer life cycle can expect a greater capitalization of the value of their properties.

And at this point, Pérez showed the contradictions of the communist regime, recognizing that “we have a lot of empty land, a lot of idle land, a lot of poorly exploited land and, at the same time, the need to produce food and bring the country forward,” confirming that the model is inefficient, does not work and must change.

He also referred to boosting the production of small livestock, where he acknowledged that the desired results are not achieved and proposed “to get producers to raise more.” For the same reason, they will raise more if they own the cattle and can determine their destination without state interference.

Of the agricultural cooperatives, he pointed out that there are more than 270 cooperatives with problems, of the more than 4,000 existing ones, a scenario that starts from the application of the Ordering Task and that remains unresolved. It seems to the minister that “it is only necessary to strengthen the search for links with producers, also taking into account relations with the non-state sector. We have to unite and make cooperative productions.” Nothing about the legal framework of property rights.

Regarding the MSMEs [“private” enterprises], he was pleased that his ministry has 27 state-owned, which has made it possible to complement some points of agricultural production. Really, it’s a result that leaves a lot to be desired.

In the final stretch of the program, Pérez returned to defending as a ministry that “we have to work better in our state functions; we have to be better as regulators and controllers of the State.” Not even a small space for private property, business and independent economic activity. For the minister, it is essential that “we should control the use and possession of land and livestock,” the same thing that the communist regime has been doing since the approval of the agrarian reform laws.

A good example was the announcement that the Ministry of Agriculture is now working together with the Ministry of the Armed Forces “with the aim of looking for more producers, helping more who deserve it and restoring legality where there is a problem.

We also are working to return the land to the management of the State when it is not well exploited.” The control of the agricultural sector by the communist army is a step backwards, an increase in repression and control, and an indicator that bad times, very bad, are coming for Cuban farmers.

*The Ordering Task is a collection of measures that include eliminating the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), leaving the Cuban peso (CUP) as the only national currency, raising prices, raising salaries (but not as much as prices), opening stores that take payment only in hard currency, which must be in the form of specially issued pre-paid debit cards, and a broad range of other measures targeted to different elements of the Cuban economy. 

Translated by Regina Anavy


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