HAVANA TIMES — When I hear talk about bureaucracy, I inevitably call to mind a high Cuban Ministry of Agriculture official with whom I shared my concerns over the crops that had been lost as a result of the negligence of State entities responsible for their collection and distribution among the population.
The official had replied that they had eliminated this problem by paying farmers and members of agricultural cooperatives for their products even if these rotted en route somewhere, before reaching their destination, thus obliging them to guarantee a steady supply of crops.
This whole matter came back to me while reading an article published in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party. The article deals with a company managed by the Ministry of Agriculture which has had 66 irrigation systems stored away in its warehouses for around six months and which refuses to sell these to farmers.
Nearly every farmer I know is always complaining about the shortage of these irrigation pumps, needed to take water to the fields, and insist their yields could be much greater if they were able to distribute the vital liquid in the right amounts to the right places.
But, for a bureaucrat, the most important thing isn’t the production of food, but, rather, “determining the new sale price of the pumps,” and it doesn’t really matter to him whether, half a year later, they “haven’t obtained the desired results,” that is, that the pumps have not yet been sold.
As is often the case, the blame is spread thin across different entities under the ministries of Agriculture, Industry and Finances, such that, whatever the damage caused to Cuba’s domestic economy, one will never be able to identify the culprit.
If the chief aim of the Ministry of Agriculture is to ensure farmlands remain productive, it seems inexplicable that they could sit waiting six months waiting for an answer, particularly when they are justified in appealing to the President of the Republic, if it were necessary.
The newspaper explains that, very near this State company, in the Manicaragua region, there are some 80 farmers that could use their lands to grow beans, had they adequate irrigation systems, like the ones idling in the company’s warehouses thanks to these officials.
In any event, it would be advisable for the Comptroller’s office to ensure all irrigation systems are still intact at the company’s warehouses. One shouldn’t be distrustful but, quite often, “bureaucratic shortcomings” conceal a crime.
In the transportation sector, for instance, the State’s inability to put hundreds of inoperative buses back into circulation conceals a lucrative spare-part “looting” business. No sooner have new parts been imported than others have already been ripped out of the vehicles and sold.
Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano used to say that a bureaucrat is someone who has a problem for every solution. We could well apply this formula to Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture officials, to those who prohibit the import of tractors for farmers, who once forbade them to build houses on their land and who today refuse to sell them the irrigation systems they need.
Bureaucrats, however, know how to watch their backs and keep their jobs, and they always “rely” on the country’s laws, be them import, housing or financial ones. No one can ever “prove” that they committed a crime, much less that they are responsible for sabotaging the country’s domestic economy.
For over 50 years, the Ministry of Agriculture has failed the country again and again, repeating the same old “it wasn’t me” speech to evade its responsibility, laying the blame on the farmers, natural disasters or the “objective difficulties caused by the US blockade.”
It will be hard to bring about improvements in the farm sector while those chiefly responsible for the crisis in agricultural production continue to blame others for their mistakes. A step towards finding solutions to these problems would be for each to assume the responsibility laid on them, particularly those who run the sector.
But we would also have to consider how much of the blame should be laid on Cuba’s administrative model, which created an unwieldy Ministry of Agriculture, mainly composed of bureaucrats who, though knowing little about agricultural production, are empowered to decide even how high the fences set up by farmers should be.
The country’s political decentralization could well become the water and the air that Cuban agricultural needs to flourish, provided that decision-making prerogatives are moved out of the Ministry’s air-conditioned offices and given back to the men and women who sweat over the furrowed soil.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.