HAVANA TIMES — Cubans welcomed 2016 startled by food prices. The price of a pound of tomatoes, onions or beans went up to as high as a day’s salary. During the last session of Cuba’s National Assembly, President Raul Castro asked that urgent measures be taken.
Corrective measures such as banning street vending and establishing price ceilings at State produce and livestock markets were implemented. The results are uncertain. At the supply and demand markets, prices have gone down slightly but remain above what they were before the New Year’s crisis. State markets are even more understocked. I’ve just returned from one where there was only sweet potatos, lettuce and papaya, none in very good condition.
As of mid-January, no authority has offered any explanation as to the situation or proposed any solutions. Alternative media and fora, however, have been meticulous in their ideas and proposals – which I’ve compiled.
My aim in this post is to present you with the main lines of thought on this issue. I’ve discerned three that stand out among the rest: a liberal one I’ll refer to as “laissez-faire,” another posture that calls for increased regulations and the official one, which lays emphasis on scientific and technical development and the liberation of productive forces. I will expound on each of these below.
This school of thought proposes that the problem of Cuban agriculture can be solved by giving complete freedom to farmers, traders and vendors: freedom to import and export and to establish the parameters of their business dealings as they see fit. Those who defend this stance suggest that the current prices of food products at markets in Cuba are not high with respect to production costs. They are certainly this when compared to the measly wages that the State pays (to workers and for the harvests that farmers are forced to sell to the State).
A champion of these ideas used the Dominican Republic as reference, saying agricultural production is in good health there because it is in the hands of private companies. Thanks to the Internet, I found out that 10 % of children in the DR suffer from malnutrition. A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report indicates that undernourishment affects 5 % of Cuba’s population, while the figure is close to 15 % in the Dominican Republic.
Eugenio Yañez, a columnist for Cubaencuentro, is another staunch defender of liberal practices in the countryside. In his last article, he writes that “(…) to try and impose prices on the market, blind to the workings of supply and demand, isn’t difficult, it’s impossible,” “it doesn’t work, nor will it ever work, for it goes against nature.” I wonder if protecting the “sardines” from the hungry “sharks” is something that goes against nature.
I’ve left sociologist Marlene Azor for last. In her comments for Havana Times posts, she has invoked the legendary example of Vietnam, a country that emerged from famine and today exports several of the crops it grows. The solution, she claims, was to let farmers produce and sell with complete freedom.
It would be advisable to clarify that commercial freedom for small farmers is one thing, while freedom for large private companies is another. Since ancient Rome, the latter, which are far more dangerous and harmful, tend to disguise themselves as the former.
During the last session of the National Assembly in December, a representative from Yaguajuay dared mention the crisis and suggested establishing maximum prices. A more enlightened version of this suggestion was defended here by journalist Fernando Ravsberg.
Here are some telling phrases from his article: “Cuba’s liberalization process is developing without a regulatory framework that places the market at the service of the people,” “Cuba’s liberalization process is so “open” that the country doesn’t even have a consumer protection office to protect the population.”
We must implement a series of sound regulations to protect the people, he opines, without reaching the extremes of total control. He supports this thesis with reference to the anti-monopoly and other laws that even the fiercest defenders of neoliberalism have been forced to respect.
Liberating the Productive Forces
An important number of government economists and high officials are laying their bets on large-scale agriculture, sustained by science and technology and greater marketing freedoms. The ideal model for them would be the large State monopolies, such as Azcuba, which operate as private companies but are ultimately controlled by the redistributive State. Another example would be the secret company (no one knows its name) which grows transgenic crops.
It is hoped these types of projects, which are often joint ventures and/or reliant on foreign capital, will introduce scientific breakthroughs into the country, modernize existing infrastructure, liberate the productive forces and substantially increase production.
Raul Castro and his gang would have loved to be able to make progress this way, but they started too late, when capitalism is already hobbling, and things haven’t turned out as they hoped.
Among those who support “liberalization” in the countryside, under the sole control of the State, there are some who call, not for large companies, but small farmers. It seems members of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC) are enthused by this proposal.
Like Azor, they too take Vietnam’s reform process as a reference. The difference, perhaps, is that the CEEC appeals to old concepts of Marxist development to defend (or perhaps conceal) the transition towards capitalism – for the benefit of the people and socialism, of course.
The tendencies mentioned above differ profoundly, but share a common denominator: the solution to Cuba’s food problems necessarily requires exponential growth in the produce and livestock sector.
Is this realistic? Is it the only option? Is it the best option?