Should Potatoes in Cuba be Rationed Once Again?

Dmitri Prieto Samsónov

Potatoes being unloaded.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Potatoes being unloaded. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I try to avoid and evade the lines of people waiting to buy potatoes. The tuber arrives this time of year, during Lent, accompanied by people’s undying potential for standing in line and starting fights with one another, in defiance of all remotely Christian feelings.

Trucks arriving from the countryside, loaded with sacks of earth-covered root vegetables, park by the produce markets and begin to unload their crates, as the news spreads by word of mouth and people begin to arrive, taking up their places, in a mathematically probable but always dubious line (for the queue thickens as it grows outward and decibel levels rise and rise). Bicycle taxis arrive and leave with a trail of complaints behind them, the desperate throats growl, gloom and tension builds up, onlookers hoard potatoes to re-sell them and general frustration swells.

In Cuba, potatoes spell a genuine disaster.

When Cuba exported potatoes to the Soviet Union on a seasonal basis, people recognized the tuber by its reddish color. Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists, red isn’t a very common color and potatoes are becoming extinct.

Last year, I had a couple enjoyable meals with potatoes, which I had bought from a re-seller at a good price. I don’t know what will happen this year. I work and I’m sincerely put off and depressed by having to waste time standing in the endless potato line.

Before, one received potato quotas through the ration booklet.

Later, these rations were “removed” as part of the updating of the economic model and in response to new commercial opportunities.

Today, potatoes are hard to come by, and those who sell these legally dispense a mere 10 pounds per person (at least where I live).

In my opinion, if the government wanted to implement a popular measure, so as to demonstrate they are once again on the side of the humble, such a measure could well be to reinstate potato rations.

They wouldn’t even need to lower prices, only ration it, include it in the ration booklet again – 5 or 10 pounds a month, at 1 peso the pound, which is the official price.

This way, the vast majority would be able to enjoy the tuber without having to stand in line for so long, as getting one’s hands on it would at least be guaranteed (or almost so – today, it happens that chicken quotas are sometimes not enough to go around, but brawls over rationed chicken are not as violently aggressive as those over potatoes sold at markets).

We would then probably see opportunists frightening people by saying that, if potatoes were rationed, people would re-sell them at a higher price to make money.

Line to buy potatoes. Photo: Juan Suarez
Line to buy potatoes. Photo: Juan Suarez

But aren’t potatoes being re-sold today anyways? Don’t these people realize that it wouldn’t be enough to go around anyways? Or that, if someone found it necessary to re-sell their 10-pound potato ration, it’s because that person is extremely underprivileged and that would become yet another of the miserable opportunities people have to survive nowadays?

Supposing this improbable suspicion turned out to be true, if people re-sold the potato rations they got through the ration booklet, wouldn’t such re-selling lead to a more equitable distribution of benefits, favorable to the vast majority, which would have access to their basic dose of potatoes, than the one that stems from today’s re-selling? I know such arguments stink.

They stink just as much as the argument that potatoes cannot be rationed because that would run contrary to the logic of the reform process, the elimination of subsidies, the market economy and other items of idle chatter coming from the Cuban brand of neo-liberal academism looming over us. Any reasonable person understands that, in a truly “prosperous and sustainable” society, there must be enough potatoes for everyone and that these must be sold at a good a price.

As I see it, Cuba’s farm produce distribution system (which includes wholesale markets, agricultural and livestock markets and grocery and ration locales, where the ration booklet is used to obtain goods) must become a cooperative of consumers.

But they have opted for a different “solution”: to rely on cooperatives made up of partners who operate large markets where produce tends to concentrate, State hoarders and private intermediaries.

In an economy with scarce products, such measures only make things more unbalanced, for state control is of necessity ineffective and iniquitous, and, when you add a bit of capitalism to it, it becomes even more wicked. Only a democratic impulse from “below” can lead to the equitable redistribution of “market” products – all kinds of products, including potatoes.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

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