HAVANA TIMES, March 8 — Today, while walking by a number of farmers market stalls full of fruits and vegetables, something made me think back to the 1990s, when food distribution was monopolized by the government through mechanisms that were as strict as they were inefficient.
Cooking has always been my hobby, but in those days it was a real headache. When I was able to buy onions, there wasn’t any garlic; and when that item finally showed up, I couldn’t find any chili peppers. I could never make a dish with all the ingredients.
Despite being in the middle of the tropics, it was almost impossible to find fruits such as oranges, pineapples, mangos or guava. Bananas never completely disappeared, but after a couple of years of eating only these fruits, I started feeling like an ape man.
Those of us who had cars used to go out to the countryside to buy fruits and vegetables from farmers, but we would return to the city like drug dealers – evading police to prevent the confiscation of boniatos (yams) that we zealously hid in our trunks.
While the opening of agricultural markets was being discussed at that stage, a nerve disease called neuritis was spreading among the population. A statement by the deputy minister of health was decisive in making it clear that the disease was caused by a lack of certain vitamins and minerals.
Dr. Terry was dismissed, but a little later, farmers were allowed to start selling their products directly to people at market prices. Interestingly, the price of rice declined from 50 pesos a pound (on the black market), to less than 10 pesos in the farmers markets.
Nevertheless, the state continued to resist the acceptance of intermediaries. It began demanding small farmers themselves to transport and market their own products – never explaining who would then actually work the land.
Some authorities carried things to the extreme. When I went in Camaguey, artisans told me that they were only allowed to sell their crafts on certain days of the week, because supposedly the rest of the time they had to be making those items.
To be fair though, I have to say that the non-acceptance of intermediaries comes not only from the government. A farmer in Matanzas Province said he was angered to see how transporters and retailers earned more than those who work the land.
From the time that food leaves the hands of the farmer until it reaches the consumer, prices of some products are increased by as much as 500 percent, even more if you count produce that’s sold illegally within farmers markets.
If that weren’t enough, many of the scales are rigged, exaggerating the weight of produce to further increase the price. And we’re not talking about insignificant half measures; recently they tried to sell me a 11-pound leg of pork while passing if off as weighing 20 pounds.
All criticisms of intermediaries by the government and the people have a real basis, but they often lose sight of the fact that these people too are workers who are as socially essential as those who produce.
It’s absurd to think that farmers are going to stop working in order to go to market to sell their wares, or that artisans will shut down their woodshops to go to a crafts fair to offer their products to tourists. Many don’t want to, can’t or prefer not to.
In any normal society, the work of intermediaries is required and this is governed by rules. What are lacking in Cuba are not laws that prohibit this, but regulations to facilitate the activity and prevent abuses.
A fair tax policy would be an ideal mechanism to curb the excesses and redistribute the country’s wealth. In more socially advanced nations, intermediaries know that the more they earn the more they will pay in taxes.
But they can be treated amicably, giving them the opportunity to buy new cars, fuel-efficient engines, supplying them with spare parts, offering them new scales and even bearings for push carts.
Establishing clear standards, providing operational facilities and collecting taxes fairly could be more productive than inciting people through the press that stigmatizes intermediaries as those who are responsible for shortages and high prices.
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.