“The State Doesn’t Pay Me, So I Sell On My Own,” Say the Candelaria Guajiros

In the informal market it is difficult to find an avocado for less than 5 CUP. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertha K Guillen, Candelaria, 18 October 2017 — A year ago the smell of guava filled the road where Santiago Hernandez was waiting for the state company Acopio (Collection) to sell the fruit he produced. With the passing of days the flies showed up and the smell turned to rot, but the truck never appeared. Now, like many others in San Cristóbal (Artemisa province), this private producer prefers to risk the informal market.

The streets and roads of Artemiseño towns are the scene of an economic battle of the deaf. The police control farmers in the area, which has a long agricultural tradition, not allowing them to sell their crops on their own, but forcing them to deliver them to the official entities; nevertheless illegal trade continues to increase.

The frequent delays in transportation and the Acopia’s successive failure to pay the farmers discourages them from following the legal process to market their crops. “Before I let them rot again I prefer to sell them for a few cents,” Hernandez tells 14ymedio.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP per pound”

The campesino is not only annoyed by the problems of transportation and lack of packaging that Acopio blames for each delay, but also by the prices set for his merchandise and the continuous problems of weighing the product that “always go against of the man from the fields,” he says.

“The maximum price they pay us for avocados is 1 CUP [Cuban peso, roughly 4¢ US] per pound, so a quintal [100 pounds] comes out at 100 [$4 US],” he laments. In the informal market it is difficult to find this delicious fruit for less than 5 CUP each. “Normally they don’t sell for less than 10 CUP each, but in order to earn that much money, I have to sell ten pounds.”

“In the street I can raise or lower the price according to what suits me, whether due to the quality of the avocados or because there is a lot of supply, but with the State everything is very bureaucratic,” says the farmer. The Council of the Municipal Administration meets every month to check if it should modify some of the prices, but the State has imposed maximums that cannot be exceeded.

“The more production there is of a product in an area, the lower Acopio’s purchase price, that’s how it works,” says Hernández. The campesino says he does not understand “such a simple” formula when it comes to fruits and vegetables that mostly end up in Havana, with high consumption in homes and private restaurants.

It is not only private producers and those who lease state-owned lands that feel dissatisfied with the strict provisions under which they must sell their crops. Farmers organized in Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) and Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS) must also comply with the rules requiring them to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the companies of the Ministry of the Food Industry (MINAL) that process fruit industrially.

Farmers organized in cooperatives must also comply with the rules and to deliver a good part of their crops directly to Acopio or to the Ministry

In the middle of this year, more than 2,600 metric tons of mangoes were lost in the fields of Guantánamo due to lack of packaging and problems associated with processing plant breakdowns. The news raised a wave of indignation among consumers and the issue was even debated in the National Assembly of People’s Power.

However, what happened is nothing new and the scenario is repeated throughout the Cuban countryside. According to a report published by Mundubat a non-governmental organization for development aid based in the Basque Country (Spain), 57% of food produced in Cuba is lost before it reaches the consumer.

The problems are worse for seasonal products such as mangoes, tomatoes and avocados. The latter has entered October in the final stretch of its harvest and it is precisely the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque that obtain a greater harvest.

In 2016 there was a drop in avocado production, which barely exceeded 90,000 tons, about 30,000 less than in 2015, while this year the abundant rains have favored the growth and ripening of the fruit. Rainfall has even managed to keep the trees growing at this time of year.

“Now the problem is not the trees, nor the climate, but the man,” complains Amancio, a Candelarian who has been “tied to the furrow.” More than a decade ago, when Raul Castro came to power in Cuba, this composed farmer thought that the problems of the state-owned company Acopio were going to be solved.

“Everybody said that the General was going to put an end to Acopio and that we could sell our crops directly, but in reality everything is still very bureaucratic and the prices they put on our products are ridiculous,” says the farmer who specializes in food crops and fruit trees.

Ignoring the established process, Amancio leaves each morning early on his tractor to sell the last avocados of the harvest. The biggest risk is being stopped by the police and having his merchandise seized and the least serious rosk is to run into an inspector and receive a fine.

Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price

“More than three months ago I sold some bananas to Acopio and they still haven’t paid me, so I prefer to go on my own,” he explains to this newspaper. The farmer also complains about the high standards that the State applies to evaluating his fruits. Each product is placed in a category, where only those labeled “premium” will be paid for at the maximum price.

“If the inspector sees a spot on a banana or that day does not feel like paying you much, he tells you that the merchandise is second rate or doesn’t have quality, then the months of work go by the wayside and you just have to wait for them to pay you, someday, an amount far below what you spent on production,” reflects Amancio.

The farmer recalls that Nelson Concepción Cruz, general director of Acopio National Union, affirmed in the parliamentary sessions of last July that “the system of collection has been reordered by new equipment and the weighing system has been gradually restored.”

With the passage of the months little has changed and the operation is still a frequent target of farmers’ criticism, claiming lack of precision in the weighing, which goes against them, the obsolescence of the weighing devices and manipulation of the scales. They also point to an excess of subjectivity when it comes to categorizing the quality of fruits, vegetables, grains and root crops.

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered

After Hurricane Irma and the rains associated with several tropical storms, the Artemisean producers come out more strongly to sell merchandise whose days are numbered. “I’m going through the nearest villages to sell what I can,” says Ramon, another producer from the region. “What I have is avocados and I sell them for up to 3 CUP, at least I do not lose all the merchandise.”

A few days ago the police gave him a warning about selling on his own. “I went out with the cart full of bananas and a patrol stopped me,” he says. “They took me to Los Palacios and forced me to sell for a few cents,” recalls the farmer. “They told me that the people needed it more, but what they do not realize is that I also have needs,” he says.

Cuba is among the countries with the lowest agricultural yield in Latin America, despite the fact that “the cooperative sector already has 80% of the land and produces more than 90% of the country’s food”, according to the Mundabat report, production “only meets 20% of the needs of the population.”

Santiago, Amancio and Ramón believe they know, from their own experience, the reason for such low numbers.