By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES – Tobacco is a traditional crop where I live, in the Mayari, Holguin valley. These lands produce great quality leaves, on the par with the best meadows in Vueltabajo, Pinar del Rio. Plus, there is a tradition of tobacco farming that dates back at least two centuries. There are many streams and rivers with a good flow all year round, a blessed water table and even a dam in nearby mountains allowing gravity-induced irrigation, without having to use electricity.
All of the ingredients for abundant production. Not only of tobacco plants, but of any crop because we have type 1 soil, flood plains. However, there are great shortages of root vegetables and food in Mayari and tobacco production and quality is dropping instead of growing. Many farmers have reduced their sown fields and others have stopped planting, myself included. I decided not to plant tobacco anymore.
The tobacco company, TABACUBA, is a state-led company and is the only one that has control over contracts with producers nationwide and at its head office in every region (Basic Economic Unit UEB). In other words, it’s a monopoly. If TABACUBA fails, everything fails. If they commit an injustice or make a mistake by setting the price of a product too low or too high, production is affected and there’s nobody else you can do business with. It’s illegal.
As TABACUBA is a centrally-planned state company, it’s subject to the country’s dysfunctional economic model that fails, fails and fails again without being reformed at its heart. It’s the same model that has us living in poverty and doesn’t allow us to make any progress. So, TABACUBA is failing time and time again and instead of moving forward, it’s moving backwards. Farmers always hold onto the hope that business will finally pick up, but TABACUBA continues to destroy it with their poor commercial practices and incompetence, and then want to rebuild it. Madness, I know, but that’s the way it is.
Nor TABACUBA nor the Council of Ministers in Cuba need the US embargo to get mixed up in problems. There’s no foreign blockade that compares to the internal blockade damaging the Cuban economy. Prices of farm supplies increase tenfold, while the price of tobacco has only gone up four times. There’s not even parity in that.
In order to encourage production of thin leaves for cigars for export, they pay less than the production cost for tobacco that doesn’t even meet this criteria. Despite their immense added value in production of cigars for national consumption and cigarettes. Million-dollar business, but producers of this valuable raw material are forced to lose money. That’s how they run into debt with banks that they can’t pay back, and their quality of life is affected, while the company gets rich.
Another injustice, or blunder because at the end of the day, a boomerang comes back and hits production, is stimulation with access to buying on MLC cards (USD prices). As the national market has become dollarized and the bank system doesn’t exchange pesos for MLC, it’s a great opportunity if they are selling you a percentage of MLC at the official exchange rate (24 x 1) because it improves your purchasing power. On the streets its over 115 to one. Well, only fine leaves for export cigars qualify for 5% of their value in MLC, yet the rest of tobacco used for exports and used to make cigars for export, don’t figure as part of this incentive deal.
In a nutshell, it’s game of chance, a kind of roulette, where a few lucky ones end up with full pockets and the majority only have a handful of crumbs or are left in debt, after so much hard work and sacrifice. Because tobacco is an intense crop that requires a lot of sacrifice, that doesn’t let you rest even a little bit.
Other farmers around here have also become annoyed with the company’s incongruencies and gave up a while ago, reluctant to go back after becoming so angry. My father and I tried to grow tobacco again, not because we had faith in the company becoming efficient finally (which is something that seems impossible if the economic system and its dysfunctional structure doesn’t change), but because we believed that the export mindset the Government was demanding would open up in times of shortage like today, and there might be a chance for things to work out.
Nope, not even tobacco which is a reliable export business can escape clear dysfunctionality. Despite the 500 million USD that the sector captured in revenue during the last season, they didn’t want to buy the supplies needed for growing the crop in a fireproof market. Afterwards, they show off many of their sales achievements, but the business could grow by leaps and bounds and many people are harmed at the furrows for them to make a profit.
However, millions have been spent to build new hotels during the pandemic, when tourists weren’t even coming to the country. Or to build a dam with more channels and tunnels, that store water that can’t be used afterwards because there aren’t any resources to install pipes or a water-treatment plant. Never mind, even though we know this has grave consequences (and it’s not for nothing that the country is in a tight spot), the absurd things that happen every day still don’t cease to surprise me.