Cuba’s Agriculture: Relativity and Time

Fernando Ravsberg*

Farmers working hard while the Ministry of Agriculture spends years studying the changes. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Administrators of the Ministry of Agriculture say that four years is too little an amount of time for any changes in that area, but I can’t believe they required 48 months to determine that campesinos needed to have their homes located on their farms.

In a recent press conference, these officials announced that they had eliminated the ban on building homes on land distributed in usufruct so that campesinos wouldn’t have to live in the city and commute every morning to work their fields.

That loose concept of time may explain why they’re still continuing to “study” the issue of the distribution and marketing of agricultural products. Notwithstanding, this overly centralized form of production — monopolized by agencies for half a century — has given ample proof of its inefficiency.

The administrators didn’t want to talk about this; they simply repeated over and over again that “it’s not the topic of this press conference.” This came as a great surprise since most farmers believe that to be the main obstacle of Cuban agriculture.

For an example, we foreign journalists explained what’s happening with milk, whose price has been reduced to a third of what’s established by the government. However the officials only talked about the quality of that product using technical arguments that are difficult to confirm.

Nevertheless campesinos are very pragmatic and have years of experience in dealing with bureaucrats; so if they’re not paid what’s agreed on, they’ll sell their milk on the black market, where there’s always someone willing to pay its true value.

Many farmers are paid a third of what the government stipulates as the price of milk. Photo: Raquel Perez

Roads are a good barometer of what’s happening. When the government began to pay cheese vendors more, they disappeared from the highways. Now they’re back, and in force, even in places that aren’t traditionally cattle-raising areas.

Nevertheless the administrators of the nation’s agriculture assured us that reform is proceeding smoothly, though they refused to give us figures about how much is being produced by the new farmers – the 150,000 campesinos who have just received land in usufruct.

These specialists say that agricultural development has to be measured qualitatively, not quantitatively; they also talk about “impacts,” gibberish that seems to have the sole purpose of hiding figures that would allow the measurement of the effectiveness of the work of MINAGRI.

The problem is that people don’t eat “impacts” – they eat fruits, vegetables and meat. The only “impact” they experience is that felt by the increasingly higher prices at agricultural markets, where a pound of potatoes now costs $2 USD in some places.

The problem isn’t that there’s no food in the streets; the agro markets are full, fixed-location sales stalls are multiplying and cart-pushing vendors are crisscrossing the neighborhoods touting their products. Never since the time when I first arrived in Cuba have I ever seen so much food – but never has it been so expensive.

Part of the explanation is that many farmers are evading commercialization that goes through the government because of the low prices it pays, in addition to delays and inefficiency when it comes time to for harvesting crops, which can lead to substantial losses.

The Ministry of Agriculture has hundreds of thousands of employees, most of them carrying out bureaucratic tasks. Photo: Raquel Perez

Because of this, much of the food produced in Cuba moves within a semi-legal spectrum in which intermediaries and the black marketeers jack-up the prices, with these players earning much more than campesinos or bled-dry consumers.

While all of this is being experienced by people on the street, MINAGRI administrators are continuing to “study” the issue of marketing. They may require six or seven years of analysis because it’s an issue that’s even more complex than authorizing the construction of homes on farms.

A person would be led to believe that this ministry is composed of a small group of people over their heads in work, but the truth is that this office has hundreds of thousands of employees. The problem is that most of them are engaged in paper shuffling.

After the press conference, I kept thinking about the theory of relativity. Four years for an ordinary person equals 1,460 days of daily struggle for them to put at plate of food on the table. Obviously administrators see things different from how consumers do.

(*) See Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish). 


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9 thoughts on “Cuba’s Agriculture: Relativity and Time

  • Grady wrote: “At the same time it would discontinue purchase orders by government for military-industrial goods and services, and steadily convert national production to peaceful, healthful, environment-saving goods and services. ”

    And this utopia would last how long? Until the neighbour, either a Fascist or Marxist dictatorship or a good old fashioned capitalist imperialist got his army together and invaded. Or may a quick inside-job coup.

    I’m sorry to have to mack you Grady, but your pretty storybook theory of a perfect co-operative society is never going to happen in the real world.

  • Griffin, when I say that the market would function differently in a cooperative republic than it does under a capitalist regime, I do not mean that the laws of supply and demand, and other mechanisms functioning in a “free” market would not exist. I mean that the motivators of the market would be markedly different.

    Under capitalism market forces tend to take national production in all sorts of unhealthy directions. These include production for all sorts of military purposes that drain resources away from useful, healthy endeavors and into things both useless and morally abhorrent.

    A socialist cooperative economy would regulate the price floating commodity production as a kind of referee for many sectors.

    At the same time it would discontinue purchase orders by government for military-industrial goods and services, and steadily convert national production to peaceful, healthful, environment-saving goods and services. But the enterprises, by and large, that would go into production would not be state owned. They would, for most significant goods and services be independent, working-associate cooperative corporations on the Mondragon model.

    At the same time, the small business community would be able to own and produce in many sectors, and satisfy the market demand of the majority of citizens who would have full employment and rising incomes and rising economic and cultural stands of living.

    You may be making the same mistake with regard to the market under cooperative socialism that Marxist critics make, that is, of assuming that the market always preforms as it does under capitalism, and cannot perform in a different way under a new, authentically socialist regime.

    I can’t explain this to you very well, because we are talking about theoretical projections. No state socialist government–like Cuba–has, as yet, come into the nascent think tank of the new movement. But if you will open your mind and think about the cooperative republican market without prejudice, you may be able to get the gist of it.

  • Grady wrote,

    “Modern cooperative, state co-ownership would utilize macro-economic planning, but in conjunction with a socialist conditioned trading market. This market would function differently than the market under capitalism.”

    You believe this market would function differently, but it won’t. One thing that all the various experiments in political economics have revealed is that the laws of economics will always exert their force, no matter the intentions of the economists or politicians. The “market” in Cuba today is functioning exactly the same way any market anywhere else in the world functions. The laws of supply and demand still rule, even when the conditions are so severely distorted by dual currencies, onerous government regulations, monopolization of resources and the idiocies of central planning.

  • Hey Luis,

    Let’s get real. The socialism designed by Engels and Marx would concentrate the ownership of all instruments of production, including all the land, in the hands of the socialist state. This would automatically abolish both private property rights and the price-fluctuating trading market.

    Without private property and the market, the only way to try and run an economy is by central planning of production and price fixing, plus massive bureaucracy to administer the economy and the state. If you do not believe that this is a correct form of socialism, then you are not a Marxist.

    Modern cooperative, state co-ownership would utilize macro-economic planning, but in conjunction with a socialist conditioned trading market. This market would function differently than the market under capitalism.

    The problem with thinkers on the Left is that they have bought into the idea that the market is evil, and always equates with capitalism. Look at what Moses said. Even the anti-socialists parrot the Marxian error.

    If you wish to continue your adulation of Karl Marx, go right ahead. You will not be the only one. I can only tell you that the Marxian economic program is unworkable and erroneous, and hope that you will open your mind far enough to see it. Cheers.

  • Hi Grady,

    I think there’s a huge misunderstanding on the ‘common-sense’ of this yet another false dichotomy of ‘planning’ and ‘market’, as if one didn’t exist without the other. Neither the USSR was absent of market elements neither the ‘free-market’ of the Western capitalist civilization is absent of regulations and government planning.

    Marx probably wrote as much about ‘central planning’ as much as Adam Smith wrote about the ‘invisible hand’ (exactly one time on The Wealth of Nations) – next to nothing.

  • There is some truth in what you’ve said. The price-fluctuating trading market is a powerful and necessary institution. Equating it with capitalism however is erroneous.

    Capitalism utilizes the market of course, but so did feudalism, slavery and pre-civilization. Socialism could and should utilize it as well, but there is a “fly in the ointment.”

    The problem with state monopoly socialism is that the institution of the market, along with that of private productive property rights, was demonized by Engels and Marx. Both institutions had to be made anathema, in order to sell to the vulnerable socialist movement the screwball notion of state monopoly.

    These two critically necessary institutions cannot exist under socialist state monopolism because, if the state has nationalized everything, these institutions are automatically abolished.

    The only way to motivate–within the movement–the abolition of two critically necessary institutions, and put in their place a parasitical army of “wise” planning and administrative functionaries, is to fashion an ersatz religion with both a god and a devil.

    Marx and Engels became God, and could not be questioned; private property and the market became Satan, and had to be disrespected. That is the bad news.

    The good news is that the sun is setting on state monopoly socialism as a program, and rising on cooperative, state co-ownership socialism. This is a form that–theoretically–could utilize the market and private property rights; and at the same time, not fall into the errors of the Chinese.

  • During my last trip to Havana, for the first week there were no potatoes to be found anywhere. Yet, 20 minutes away in Guanabo, there were so many potatotes available in the agro that they were throwing them away in the sreet. The second week there were plenty of potatoes in Havana and no boniato. Pricing aside, another failing owed to socialism and centralized management is distribution. Letting the market decide (ergo capitalism) would solve these problems.

  • On the last page of the second chapter of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, it states that, especially in agriculture, production should be carried out by “industrial armies.” Such an agricultural army presumably would march out from the cities, work the nationalized land, then march back home. This of course was utter nonsense then, and it is utter nonsense now. But since Marxism became an ersatz religion, it is part of the “ideal” now, and the PCC leaders cannot examine it with clear minds.

    I am so sick of this Marxist dogma that I could scream. The Cuban farmers and ranchers need to own their own lands, and be included by the political leadership in the project of socialist transformation. They are the laboring small bourgeoisie, a legitimate working class. The Marxian mechanism of usufruct can never utilize the genius and labor of the peasants properly, and it should be discarded.

  • Interesting report!

    Fernando wrote,
    “Never since the time when I first arrived in Cuba have I ever seen so much food – but never has it been so expensive.”

    This is where the key problem lives. Under an ordinary market driven system, as demand goes up, prices go up, and production goes up to meet rising demand. Eventually an equilibrium is reached in which prices are high enough to maintain production, but low enough to be affordable to the general public. The producers and suppliers would work to maximize their efficiency and thereby lower their costs and raise their profits. There are of course, many ways in which this simplified system can be distorted.

    In Cuba, the greatest distortion comes from the dual currency system. Anybody with access to CUC can afford to pay much more than those with only local pesos. Very quickly, the prices rose beyond the reach of many Cubans. Production would rise to meet the demand, but for the rules and regulations imposed by bureaucracy. What increases in food production do occur are channeled off to the CUC economy. But the CUC economy is so much more profitable than the local peso economy, there is no incentive for efficiency. The only rule is to grab as many dollars as you can. In the local peso economy, there’s no reward for efficiency, as the state will pay only the predetermined price.

    As a result, the so-called “market reforms” recently introduced are not improving the efficiency or the productivity of the Cuban economy and is in fact, making it worse. But so long as enough people are chasing CUC’s and dollars, and so long as this cash continues to flow into the right pockets, at least for now, nobody is going to fix the problem.

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