By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – In Cuba, there are supply and demand agro-markets, which differ from state-run markets because they always have produce, but prices are much higher.
Here the law of “take it or leave it” is applied, and the sellers set the tune, some of which would rather see their produce go to rot than lower their prices. Yormivia Herrera 49, has been working at a stand as a seller for 18 years.
HT: Who sets the prices you sell your produce for?
Yormivia Hernandez: First of all, the farmer who works the land. The middle person goes with their vehicle to pick up produce from the neighboring Mayabeque province and then resells this at different supply and demand agro-markets. I’m third in the chain, that’s why prices are so high. Many customers are astonished and protest, but the more expensive things are to buy, the more expensive we have to sell them. I always try to put up with customers’ complaining, that’s why I have so many customers.
HT: How long do you work?
YH: I get to the stall at 8 AM and work until 6 PM. I pay 75 pesos (3.75 usd) per day for this space. Sometimes, I only work until 3 PM and my assistant carries on selling. Being in the same place for so long, nearly always sitting down, makes me dizzy and I have neck and circulatory problems. The weekend is the best time, few people come from Monday to Friday.
HT: How often do you receive produce?
YH: Monday is our day off selling and trucks come on Monday and Thursday afternoons to sell to us. I don’t buy beans because they are very expensive, they sell them for 12 pesos and I would have to sell them for 15, but I don’t make any profit on them because not everybody buys them. The same thing happens with malanga, they sell it for 6 pesos per lb. and I sell it for 8 pesos, but because they come covered in a lot of soil, I don’t get a good return on it. I sell bananas, oranges, papayas, onions, melons, eggplant and other root vegetables. I buy cucumbers cheap but they don’t sell quickly enough, fruit is what sells quickly.
HT: Where do you store your produce?
YH: There is a warehouse at the back of the market, we pay 10 pesos per day to keep our produce there. I personally always verify the weight of what I’m leaving before putting it into storage and I do the same when I collect it in the morning, but there’s always something missing in the morning. This has become a bad habit and nobody answers for what’s missing. I also pay for lunch, water, cleaning my stand and for the music they put on at the agro-market, among other things.
HT: What do you do when your produce is going off?
YH: I very rarely lose my produce. I always try to take advantage of the very last bit but, if it does start going off, I give customers whatever I can’t sell and isn’t rotten yet, or I consume it myself. Although, I sometimes also lower prices. When poor-quality produce comes in, I don’t buy it. Here, there are sellers who let their produce rot until it isn’t even fit for animal consumption.
HT: Do you know about sellers’ tricks with scales?
YH: Yes, of course. I don’t do it myself, that’s why I have so many customers. I think they put a small magnet on the scale’s arm. At the agro-market, we have a scale which customers can use to verify the weight of their purchase if they have any doubts about what they were sold and if it comes up short, sellers have to give them their money back or make up what is missing. The market manager reserves the right to punish the seller who does this with a 20-day or month-long ban on selling at their stand.
HT: There are very few women here… How do you deal with machismo?
YH: There are three of us women in total, but we each have our own space. I have an assistant who I pay 50 pesos per day, he helps me out a lot, especially when I have to move produce from one place to another. I have had some disagreements with my fellow sellers because sometimes they stick their noses into my business: If I drop prices, if I give away rotten produce, if I’m nice to my customers… the etc’s are endless! But, to tell you the truth, my fellow sellers are respectful, but there is definitely a great deal of machismo!
HT: What happens when it rains?
YH: If my produce gets wet, I lose everything. Rainwater is lethal for my products and leaks are our worst enemy. Nobody has come forward and said anything about fixing the roof. It really saddens me when rain and wind get in the way of my work. I always try to keep an eye on the weather, but sometimes we can’t escape unexpected rains, that’s why I always carry a plastic sheet in my backpack in case.
HT: Is this work worth your while?
YH: I don’t make much, maybe 500 pesos (25 usd) per week. It’s impossible to give you a daily estimate, but I always make something, even if it isn’t what I was expecting. I have been at this stand for many years, lots of people know me, some prefer to but from me out of friendship. I am a very positive person, I always try to be in a good mood. I have seen that nobody comes to buy when I’m depressed.
HT: Do you think prices can change?
YH: I know that working the land isn’t an easy job, I don’t believe I could do that, first of all because of my health problems and secondly, because agriculture requires care and attention which only farmers know.
The world is ruled by the market. Farmers have the produce and they set a price they think it right, buyers can then buy it or not, that’s their choice. The price of quality products depends on what you can afford. Cubans are used to the State controlling every economic action in the country. Many years will pass by before they get used to the law of supply and demand. But, of course, getting used to it with such low wages will be impossible.