Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture: Finding a Problem for Every Solution

Fernando Ravsberg*

Though water shortages are one of the main problems faced by farmers, Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture refuses to sell them the irrigation systems that sit idle in their warehouses. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

Political decentralization can spell considerable benefits for agriculture if decision-making processes are moved out of the Ministry’s air-conditioned offices. Photo: Raquel Pérez

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.

3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture: Finding a Problem for Every Solution

  • wonderful story , just hope they get there ducks in order . change is on its way .

  • I was in Cuba the end of April and took a ride on a little train for tourists. On both sides of the railway tracts were tomatoes growing but most were very ripe. We asked the men who ran the train why they were not picked. He said “they didn’t supply us with boxes!”. There just seems to be so much wasted land- that it wouldn’t take much ability to cultivate, irrigate and produce so much more food then is presently done. I think that it must be like what Grady before me has said. the Collective farms were so inefficient.

  • They had the same sort of failure of the agriculture sector in China under Mao Zedong. Mao’s forced collectivization left the country in semi-starvation. After Mao died and his “four” main successors had been gotten rid of–as I recall the story–peasants in a certain village decided they’d had enough, and began to cultivate private plots of land.

    This was illegal, because everything was supposed to be communalized, even if it meant a starving nation. Well, the private plots were reported to Deng Xiaoping. Instead of ordering an arrest, he said the farmers should be allow to continue, and that the Party should “see what happens.”

    Well, of course, the privatized plots were ultra-productive. The Party then decided to apply the results of this spontaneous experiment to the whole country. The agriculture sector of China soon revived, and the people finally had enough to eat.

    I’m recapitulating this Chinese experience–from memory–to take issue with one part of Fernando’s excellent article. He says that “decision-making prerogatives [should be] moved out of the Ministry’s air-conditioned offices and given back to the men and women who sweat
    over the furrowed soil.”

    While I agree wholeheartedly with “who” should have “decision-making prerogatives,” I disagree that this can be achieved by tweaks of the administrative system.

    What is needed, I strongly feel, is a return to small plot ownership by the peasants, and that they need to have broad freedom to market their produce for the best prices–so long as this does not go against sensible law, or contradict the National Plan.

    Thanks, Fernando, for another excellent article. Cheers.

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