Hot Potato Campaign

By Daisy Valera

The nightmare of most Cuban university students approaches. It’s the annual potato harvest in 85-degree heat.

The potato harvest has begun. Photo: Caridad
The potato harvest has begun. Photo: Caridad

Participation is mandatory for all faculties of the University of Havana, and for every other university institution for that matter.

A certain number of students are selected and told they must go harvest potatoes as part of their educational experience.

This means spending 15 days in a military camp and attempting to collect 25 sacks of potatoes a day – from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Each year the University of Havana and the José Antonio Echeverría University Center (CUJAE), which are institutions with thousands of students, are asked for 120 students each to go to the fields.

To meet the quotas the call rotates to the different faculties, one year the law school, another economy, and on and on. At those schools the students only have to go once in their five years at university and some never.

At my university the same quota of 120 students is made despite the fact that our enrolment is only 300. Thus we are at a big disadvantage with the bigger schools. The result is that students at my center have to go three times instead of one or none.

One of the worst parts is when the assignments are made by classroom; that’s when the medical excuses proliferate.

People who have medical certificates begin to be harassed by the leaders of the FEU (Federation of University Students) and the UJC (Young Communist League), determined to show that they are fake.

I suffer from scoliosis, but the school’s leaders of those groups locked me in a classroom and told me they didn’t believe my doctor’s certificate.

If I hadn’t ended up screaming that they were being arbitrary, and that none of them was a doctor, I’m sure that some sack of potatoes would have aggravated my already twisted back.

Clearly, many students look for certificates that are unjustified, but the problem is that no one wants to go to the fields when they realize that most students from other faculties don’t have to.

To miss classes to go to the fields also implies a certain falling behind in our study plan, which is later taught hastily.

Still, there’s something even worse. It can be quite discouraging after toiling for potatoes in the field, and then seeing that you can hardly find any to buy.

And when they are available they are nothing like those huge potatoes in the fields. The ones in our stores are often barely the size of lemons. So you begin to question where they all went – where did the fruit of your labor go?

Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

One thought on “Hot Potato Campaign

  • It’s a real shame this important economic activity is being handled this way. Not much vision here, is there? It seems to me that control of these foodstuffs should indeed be more transparent: the people growing and picking and transporting this produce should all know exactly where it is going, and why. As should the rest of the country.

    I’ve always had the idea that the problems with finding harvest-time labor, etc., would be alleviated by things such as developing good transportation infrastructure into the countryside, and providing good housing on the farms — and good pay for this job too (it’s still socialism, after all). And why couldn’t the evenings be made entertaining for the pickers as well (if they weren’t all dog-tired and ready for bed at 19h00, that is), with professional shows offered, etc. at some central facilities? People from the cities should actually be looking forward to such a little break from their daily routine. It should be an adventure. A fun time shared by all.

    I know Cuba is a poor country — but it seems to me that there are problems beyond that here, with so much land lying fallow for so long, or poorly used, etc. There has clearly been some less-than-optimal planning and limited vision along the way to the Revolution. Serving your country for 2 weeks a year, out in the sun, and getting some exercise and fresh air shouldn’t be the chore that it so obviously still is. It really should still be a socialist adventure instead.

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