A Case of Failed State Intervention

Yenisel Rodriguez

Havana produce market. Photo: Lazaro Gonzalez

In 1961 the revolutionary government took control over what was the largest agricultural market in the capital and the country, popularly known as the “Mercado de Cuatro Caminos” (the Four Roads Market).

With this action began the process of the deterioration of the business culture that had been built up among the merchants there since the founding of the market in 1921.

There had been 40 years of exploitation and the domination of workers and consumer alike. It’s not necessary to call to it deceit, but what caused the government’s intervention beginning in 1961 had no precedent.

State administration put in check opportunities for the socialization of workers and consumers. It fractured those hot spots where people’s resistance and exploitation and domination co-existed.

There were many errors. An effort was made to centrally plan everything, with the result being chaos.

The same for everybody

The neighborhood sales points that were supplied by the Cuatro Caminos Market became homogenized. There was no differentiation between stands that sold fruits or those that sold root vegetables. Root vegetables and fruit for everybody. The same quality and the same quantity. Ever simplifying and simplifying society. To be able to feed everyone, all at the same time, feeding was from mouth to mouth, like what birds do with their nestlings.

Consequently the vendors that specialized in selling a single product could not maintain their sales levels. They began to reject the shipments from Cuatro Caminos, and as could be expected, corruption exploded.

Vendors competed for access to the best products. This competition was so strong that it fragmented the networks of solidarity that had existed among the smallest vendors. Those who saw themselves resigned to receive all the products adopted a policy that forced the consumers to buy all the products sent to the market.

This was done without considering the consumer’s needs, something that none of these vendors thought could happen. If you wanted to eat a mango you had to buy a yam. It was much worse if one didn’t have the money to buy the complete unit. These people ate neither mangos nor yams.

This distribution system paid no attention to the eating habits or the purchasing power in each province. It was called “sale by quarters and lots,” a regionalization of distribution that contained no study of the previous market. It was an administrative function.

In the Cuatro Caminos Market four cubicles were created corresponding to each one of the distribution quarters. “La Gran Habana,” as the capital was called at that time, had a population of 1.527,000 residents! And each quarter had 381,750 consumers!

They had to force people to buy at the same sales location and to number these consumers so they didn’t buy spontaneously, since the market couldn’t satisfy incidental levels of demand. Selling was impersonalized so as not to favor the traditional clientele. With this objective, many vendors were moved more than half a kilometer from their previous sales points.

Not even the genie in the bottle could make those marketing designs work, so the government opted for authoritarianism and coercion. This was their master key for making the centralized distribution structure function.

This turned people against each other, creating conflict between consumers and vendors but also contention within both of these groups – a veritable free for all.

Everyone for themselves, that’s what the government intervention led us to.

(To be continued…)