By Gisselle Morales Rodriguez (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — If before Hurricane Irma, someone would have told me that I was going to miss burro bananas so much, that I would wait in line for three hours to buy five or six bunches and that I wouldn’t see the other plantains at all, which we call criollo or macho, for months; I probably wouldn’t have believed them.
Because one thing is the shortage of agricultural produce in state markets is something that suddenly happens after a hurricane that ruins crops and disrupts harvests, but the nearly absolute destruction of Cuban fields from Camaguey to Havana was completely different; it was a disaster that has shot up prices of the little that is being harvested.
Although, to be honest, if average Cubans are having a more and more hard time to put food on their plates, it’s not entirely Irma’s fault. Before, a long time before September 9, 2017, public anger relating to the upward spiral of prices had left conversations on block corners behind and even made itself present in Parliament itself, where the Sancti Spiritus lawmaker Israel Perez Caceres, aka. Katanga, took on the role of Robin Hood at a plenary session:
“Something needs to be done because every six months (prices) increase and continue to increase and it’s the people who are suffering. And Cuban farmers aren’t to blame for this situation, that I can ensure you. (…) I don’t believe that a group of people can decide how much a product costs. I’m not saying that we fix a price, I’m saying we have to place a price cap, demand that there is a maximum price for products,” Perez Caceres said and then his complaint was translated, just a few weeks later, into Resolution No. 157 of 2016 which the Ministry of Finance and Prices created which put a stop to speculation. A stop on paper.
However, in the brutality of practice, excitement with price caps was brief. No matter how many inspectors there are in Cuba (there aren’t enough anyway), they don’t have the gift of being omnipresent so as to control every retail point all the time; and lastly, what are resolutions and tax inspectors for if agricultural production in our fields don’t meet the national demand?
And so, what normally happens happened: the reality that the legal apparatus drew out was one thing and what Cubans come across when they go to market is another. At state-run establishments, variety stands out for its absence and those who operate in so-called “supply and demand” markets have lost any trace of humanity they had.
It’s not me just saying this, stats from Havana’s sellers’ own signs on pieces of cardboard say it too: a pound of peppers, 40 pesos; a pound of tomatoes, 30 or 35 pesos; a bunch of seven miserable carrots, 40 pesos. And thank God for the street sellers because the only things that are plentiful in State Agro-Markets are rice, beans, flour, pineapples, chopo (malanga), and a squash here and there…
In the country’s interior, this part of Cuba which some people imagine to be the capital’s storehouse, the landscape is a lot bleaker. The hurricane destroyed fields in seven provinces and diminished the ability to supply the nation to such an extent that, in a recent National TV News report, the Sancti Spiritus Acopio (Cuba’s State purchasing entity) recognized that it currently supplies society’s consumption, the State and other markets with half of the produce that it used to deliver before the hurricane. Half!
Sources from this entity justified such a situation with the well-known fact that land needs to meet its targets on the national spreadsheet, which in good Cuban means to say that food is sent to other destinations – Havana and Matanzas, for example. Meanwhile, cassava, sweet potatoes and malanga are “imported” from other provinces with the ensuing commotion (build-up) at points of retail when a truck begins to unload.
Conscious of the fact that the situation is quite frankly unbearable, the Agricultural system (at least in Sancti Spiritus province) has designed a strategy to prioritize key agricultural centers and to get ahead of the cold season with short-cycle crops, all of which is to alleviate the damage caused by the rains as much as possible. First, there was drought; now, then there was too much water.
The strategy should bear its first harvests in late December or early January. Meanwhile, we’ll have to continue getting by with our rations of rice, beans and main dish here and there, that’s if hens overcomes their post-traumatic stress disorder after the hurricane and lay eggs again, because pork at 45 pesos the pound for steaks won’t be able to feed many people.
It costs between 45 to 60 pesos to be exact at supply and demand markets in Havana, a price which thanks to an increase in production isn’t the same in every province.
In Sancti Spiritus, a province that has broken its records of pork production on more than one occasion, the State market sells pork meat at 16 pesos per pound, which implies the company met its so-called social consumption targets, and a little extra to see on the free market.
However, high food prices can’t be fixed with temporary fixes. Rather than charging farmers taxes on owning and using farmland or fixing prices by decree, the kilometer-long chain that travels from Cuban furrows to Cuban plates needs to urgently be reconsidered. It currently involves a long path of insufficient inputs to farmers, speculation and intermediaries who, since the dawn of time, have only affected consumers.