By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — Every Sunday, there is the “Los Chinos” agro-market fair in the city of Holguin in eastern Cuba. Trucks loaded with produce come from all over the country, mainly from its central provinces. As there is competition and since the sellers can bulk buy on the farms, there are lower prices than normal, which doesn’t exactly mean that it’s cheap.
Of course, the trucks have been rented out, the real owners of this produce are the merchants known as “intermediaries”. These trade operators play an essential role in the development of agriculture because they stimulate production by creating confidence in commercialization. They logically make nice profits, maybe more than what would be fair; but the problem here doesn’t lie in their existence as such, but in the many knots in the Cuban system which make balanced regulation almost impossible.
In the 1980s, the government experimented with the so-called Farmers’ Free Markets (MLC) and then it was shut down by Fidel himself, who couldn’t stand the idea that some Cubans were “getting rich”. In order to cure his headache, he destroyed the emerging semi-free market.
In the ‘90s, a Party leader from Pinar del Rio spoke about reviving the MLC in a televised Congress session (perhaps the IV Plenary session of the Cuban Communist Party in 1991), where the idea alone unleashed Fidel’s rage on the spot and on live TV (I watched this) and then rumors went round from Pinar that the person who dared share his opinion had been dismissed of his responsibilities.
When hunger took its hold of Cuba, he sent brother Raul Castro to announce “the same dog but with a different collar”: the Agro-Market. I remember that this was announced in an interview granted to Luis Baez and was published in Granma and then repeated across the media. The government journalist began his article by saying that he had been looking for that interview with Raul for some time and that Raul had finally taken some time out for him: it was pure theater! Both of them knew what the objective was. Fidel never spoke about the subject.
Today, criminalizing the private sector because of its high prices continues to be a subject of debate in Parliament, especially against the famous Intermediaries; who are restricted or prohibited at times and have their merchandise seized resulting in great losses. However, the truth is that they don’t dare to ban them because without them completely because there wouldn’t be commerce or stable farming production.
However, these are the larger merchants, who, even though they pay for the same license as smaller ones, have completely different functions. Small traders who sell at a higher price are the ones who mainly purchase their products from the larger Intermediaries. Here in the Holguin province, hundreds of small traders (push cart or bike sellers) travel on Sundays to the capital city and they buy their produce from the trucks at the Los Chinos market.
Every one of them with two or three sacks also provide work for horse drawn cart drivers and bici-taxis operators who transport them to bus and train stations paying for every sack. A lot of people benefit from this trade, especially the government which charges them for the license, taking 10% of gross sales, social security payments and fines for any silly mistakes. All of this translates into the product’s final price, which reaches customers in urban neighborhoods where it often costs double or triple the initial price.
However, the private sector in Cuba isn’t only sentenced to having these restrictions on growth which our laws impose on them; they are also treated like a necessary evil, harassed by whimsical regulations. They don’t have a transparent and secure supply chain, nor do they have the legal freedom to seek it out. They do this but they take risks.
On Sunday February 5th, at the Los Chinos market, dozens of self-employed resellers had their sacks filled with produce bought from equally legal intermediaries. A group of inspectors approached them and they wanted to confiscate their purchases for having violated the “anti-hoarding law”. It seems outrageous but it’s true. A great discussion broke out and the police in charge of keeping order at the market, intervened. In the face of the resistance that had been created by those accused and others who were doubtful in helping the inspectors, the police called for the Head of the Unit, a Major, who turned up on the scene.
There were several people from my town of Mayari among the traders who had their purchases taken away. One of them, Jose Ramon, usually sells on my street and he told me the whole story. Then I confirmed what he told me with another seller, not without first asking several others, among the many who pass by here every day offering their garlic, peppers, onions or bijol under the scorching sun.
The story goes that the Major arrived arrogantly and ordered those who wouldn’t stop protesting to shut up. He was met with: “You like getting your hands on ham a lot. Ham is what the inspectors get, who make a living by fining us for no reason; we work really hard to earn our pesos,” one of the boldest protestors said.
After a lot of wasted time (held for over three hours under the risk of having their things confiscated and bad times), the police finally guided the inspectors in their conversation with them to release the purchases. Common sense won out, but this was just one more example of government resistance to how the private sector runs in Cuba, even at these incipient times.
Tradesmen didn’t have so few rights even in medieval hamlets!” They had unions and brotherhoods which united and protected them, Cuban self-employed merchants don’t.
There are many forms of repression, not just political repression. This budding private sector, which has appeared with the self-employed, is the seed to opening up our economy more, which is fundamental so that we can reach economic and social progress. Repressing them and prohibiting their development with laws and individual actions is just another way to delay this essential path: it’s another form of repression in Cuba.