On Cuba’s Farmers, Lettuce and Hotels

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 1 — The recent authorization given to different types of cooperatives to sell products directly to the tourism industry is positive and significant for two reasons.

Firstly, this is a measure that introduces a note of rationality to the Cuban economic system – after five decades of its having been incredibly mediocre and bureaucratic.

Farming and livestock products of whatever kind has been only recognized as payable merchandise after they’re recorded by bureaucracies designed for that purpose, with all the waste entailed. Even though this rigidity has weakened somewhat in the heat of the unending crisis, in essence, it continues in this vein.

I remember one case that I observed directly in the small town of Chambas (in Ciego de Avila Province) while conducting sociological research in the late 80’s. There’s no doubt that it would have inspired the great dramatist Eugne Ionesco, as well as his theater of the absurd.

Though in Chambas there was a port close to the Punta Alegre fishing operation, which supplied fish to a cooperative, those same fish had to be transported many miles to the provincial capital, where they then had to be registered as payables, thereby becoming “real.” Subsequently they had to be transported back that same distance to Chambas.

However, since the trucks’ cooling systems were poor, the freight would often return spoiled. This meant that the locals couldn’t eat fish, not unless they turned to the black market. It was here that the fishermen of Punta Alegre (many of whom lived in Chambas) became responsible for shortening the path of those unfortunate denizens of the sea.

Fast forwarding to the 90’s – amidst the terrible crisis that Cuban authorities euphoniously refer to as the “special period in a time of peace,” I had the opportunity to learn a little about the issue of foreign investment in hotels in Varadero.
At one of them I talked at length with a young Spanish manager, a Taylorist technocrat who had decided to siphon off as much surplus value possible from each of his Cuban employees in the shortest amount of time possible.

I remember that the person in charge at the front desk was a former head of the philology department of a university in the middle of the island. This was someone who not only knew English and French, but who had read Racine and could recite Walt Whitman by heart. Nonetheless, her legs were always swollen because of having to stand up all day.

Then too there was this manager of a jewelry store (also a former university professor), so refined and intelligent, capable of selling a wedding band to an 80-year-old priest. This woman would complain and carp daily about her frustration with a job that only allowed her to survive with some low level of comfort while others fell victim to poverty and deprivation.

The young Spanish manager was delighted with his situation, except with the purchasing of the hotel’s fresh fruits and vegetables. He had to buy them from an intermediary who lived in nearby Cardenas, though this person was usually short on produce and could only offer wilted lettuce and overly ripened mangoes. The challenge wasn’t about what this junior manager wanted, but what he could get.

With a mischievous smile, he confided in me that he found out a way to obtain many products directly from places like the Bahamas, Cancun and Florida (a fact that I hope won’t be taken into account as circumstantial by US congress member Ileana Ros-Lenthinen).

The new measure allowing direct sales should have had a positive effect on reducing costs and on the formation of a chain of products and services vital for local development. This is a way to boost tourism as an engine for economic growth – and for that reason alone I think it’s important and beneficial. I also believe that steps of this nature should occur in all directions, not just in relation to agriculture.

But there’s a second point that I think is even more important: its systemic impact.

The Cuban system — economically and politically — has always been based on the existence of a severely centralized vertex and a fragmented and isolated base. In this centralization has resided the capacity to control and prevent critical disruptions.

As such, if we review the history of the system, we’ll see that preventive banning and prohibitions have been more frequent and effective than the direct repression of dissent.

In politics this has been very clear: Each institution is a vertical structure which in turn feeds into the political center. There are no horizontal relationships or communications. Everything ultimately issues into a very small cupola of power occupied by a leader (for whom we parade in front of every May Day) surrounded by a narrow circle of subordinate collaborators (who vary according to circumstances).

For decades this leader and his inner circle were the only legitimate producers of politics and ideology. The rest of us have been nothing more than consumers.

The economy evolved in the same manner. Everything began with a bureaucratic and centralized plan, which was constantly violated by that same bureaucratic and centralized structure.

Operating exactly like the regimented political system, the market was fragmented to avoid free contact with its agents. Moreover, starting in the 90s, the economy was also marked by two different currencies. This opened the door to the promising field of currency exchange profiteering, which was actively taken advantage by officials metamorphosing into the new bourgeoisie.

All of this explained the Spanish manager’s anxiety and his final decision to seek overseas vegetables, despite having excellent agricultural fields only a few miles away from his tourist ghetto. All around was land teaming with farmers ready and willing to produce, but they were hamstrung by inspectors and police officers intervening to commandeer the produce into state warehouses.

With this recent measure, another step forward has been taken in the defragmentation of markets. This is moving in the same direction as the new law that will deregulate the housing market. Therefore, this represents another serious step in that other process — which will be long and painful — of the construction of capitalism in the country.

But let me reiterate: It’s a positive step. It will help boost the economy and food production, all of which is extremely important for a society which, because of mismanagement, has been reduced to poverty and an alarming degree of vulnerability.

If there ends up being more food produced in Cuba and most Cubans eat better, this is a positive. If there will be more autonomous actors — even if only in this limited area of ??the economy — this too will be positive. And if these actors engaged in production and accumulation wind up employing workers and paying them better than what the state does, then it’s so much the better.

In addition, all of this creates a less rarefied atmosphere for advancing an agenda of national reconstruction, one of a democratic republic of justice and solidarity.

Yet obviously this is not what is suggested by the reforms of the general/president, whose anti-democratic pedigree no one has the right to doubt. His agenda is not that of democracy. This is because the expected autonomy will be in the market, not in politics. And it’s not certain that a commercial invigoration of the economy will lead in a linear direction to a democratic opening.

There will be production, yes; and liberalization (meaning more liberalism), but not more democracy.

In fact, I would dare to argue that the production of democracy would be dysfunctional, because the opening taking place in Cuba, one aimed at achieving optimum performance, must coexist with a working class and a citizenry without rights and without the organizational infrastructure or experience to raise demands.

Borrowing from the infamous anti-Cuban metaphor posited by Granma editor Lazaro Barredo, the public is like insistent wide-mouthed nestlings, but in this case they would find themselves with their mouths closed shut.

In politics, the Cuban government will only concede what’s necessary to assure that its economic model functions in its behalf. Hence we saw the agreement with the Catholic hierarchy, the release of prisoners and the recent relaxation of internal migration – all of which is ultimately a better scenario for the housing market to work, the laundering of fortunes and converting treasures into capital.

Soon we will see a few liberalizing steps with regard to emigration. These are necessary to attract “foreign savings,” which represents the money of emigrants, arriving in the form of remittances or investments.

But that’s it. The Cuban authorities, their intellectuals and their subservient underpaid bloggers have been very clear in that the opening of democracy and the rebellion of the island’s “indignant” already took place in 1959 – way back 52 years ago.



3 thoughts on “On Cuba’s Farmers, Lettuce and Hotels

  • This is a really dreadful article. Theoretically shallow, logically inconsistent and woefully cynical, but the latter is no surprise coming Mr. Dilla. He seems to revel in it.

    Dilla claims that allowing farmers to sell their produce directly to hotels is, wait for it, “another serious step in [the] process … of the construction of capitalism in the country.” It’s pretty clear from this that Mr Dill has no idea what capitalism is, and what a post-capitalist society that is neither capitalist nor communist is. Cuba is, by any sensible definition based on Marxism, the latter. And it will continue to be so whether or not people can by and sell their own homes, and whether or not producers can sell directly to hotels.

    He laments what he says as a process of capitalist restoration in Cuba, yet…he supports this measure, which he sees as a “serious step” in this direction. (!?)

    Can you make sense of this? I can’t.

    Not open-minded, and not written from Cuba.

  • Great reporting. HT is truly an incredible vehicle for un-biased news out of Cuba. I read it daily and again,
    thank you!

  • This is a really good article. Thanks, Haroldo. I like your paragraph: “In addition, all of this creates a less rarefied atmosphere for advancing an agenda of national reconstruction, one of a democratic republic of justice and solidarity.” Amen to such a new republic. My concept for this, as may be well known by now, is a socialist cooperative republic, the same thing we advocate for the United States and every country.

    Regarding producers’ cooperatives for agricultural products, I’ve just been turned on to an amazing speech by Lenin–in Russian with English subtitles–on “Consumers’ and Producers’ Co-operative Societies. It may be found at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=GE9JXScBK3g&feature=related

    For one thing in this speech, Lenin calls his revolutionary government a “workers’ and peasants’ government. This means that a socialist government is of all the productive, working sectors, not just the industrial proletariat. This should let the Cuban PCC know that the small farmers are a working class that is part of the socialist transformationary project. These laboring families need to own their own lands and need to be free to cooperate with each other to purchase economic inputs more cheaply, and to market their produce cooperatively to obtain the best prices available, both domestically and internationally. The wealth acquired by such farmers would enrich socialist Cuba, and this would be progressive.

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