What Cuba Loses Because of its Incompetent Farm Bureaucracy

By Fernando Ravsberg

Foto: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — How much does Cuba lose each year because of the inefficiency of its agricultural bureaucracy? Let’s take a look at some of the hard figures.

The internal marketing of Cuban agricultural products reaches close to 7 billion CUP per year, which is to say around $290 million USD. This figure includes all the State markets and retail stores, supply and demand markets, cooperatives and street cart sellers.

The production that Cuban farmers contribute only constitutes a small part of what the country needs. Cuba imports around 75% of its food, spending 1.9 billion USD per year. The figure could be less but Cuba’s farm bureaucracy loses 57% of harvests because of its inefficiency.

If only 43% of what is being harvested reaches markets and other consumers, the losses due to the incompetence of those responsible for managing food distribution are worth approximately 165 million USD per year, that’s $14 million per month! Almost half a million dollars per day!

You could buy 5,000 tractors per year for that amount or import over 700,000 tons of fertilizer. This would increase food production, reducing imports, which is one of the government’s main objectives.

Agronomist Fernando Funes manages to market over 90% of his harvests using techniques that aren’t from another planet. Foto: Raquel Pérez Díaz

If Cuba could save the resources that rot in the fields or in warehouses and use them to buy powdered milk, it would be able to buy about 80 million kilos, enough to give every Cuban citizen milk until old age.

If they invested what the farm bureaucracy wastes on public transport, the government could buy about 800 new European buses, whereby there would be more buses in Havana in 10 years than before the crisis in the ‘90s.

Getting ahead of those who will say that these calculations might be over the top, I’ve accepted to halve them and the result would be just as outrageous: losing 400,000 USD per day, the equivalent of 2500 tractors, 500 buses or 40 million kg of milk per year.

The government is constantly talking about saving but it protects one of the country’s greatest squanderers, the farm bureaucracy. The “mechanism” they use to manage work in the fields and to distribute harvests has already proved its incompetence on too many occasions.

Food imports could be reduced by a third if the farm bureaucracy didn’t lose so much of the harvests. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

The official press has tried to hide, justify or sugarcoat their incompetence, but sometimes losses are so great – thousands of tons of tomatoes or rotten mangos – that a journalist or government representative breaks the “pact of silence” and then a scandal breaks out.

The government insists on keeping this “mechanism” without trying alternatives. One would be having the agricultural ministry limit itself to helping farmers including selling them transport vehicles so they could establish their own distribution service, without state or private intermediaries.

Agronomist Fernando Funes is an example that few people want to see: he grows what the market asks him to, he has his own distribution system, he manages to sell over 90% of his harvest, he pays better wages and he earns enough to live a dignified life.

We aren’t talking about Japanese lean production but about a small ranch situated as you leave Havana, with poor soil quality, full of stones and very little water. The country’s agricultural bureaucracy seems to fear that Funes’ example of independent management will spread and take away their power.

The farm bureaucracy not only leaves crops to rot in the fields but it also has a way of picking up and distributing what’s harvested in a diabolic way that allows the products to receive 11 blows before reaching the consumer. Photo Raquel Perez Diaz

US President Trump is shutting down the game, returning to the old strategy of creating misery among the Cuban people. He could even be harder on Cuba than before Obama’s time in office because Washington has now closed the valve of open Cuban immigration to the US.

Within this context, squandering the financial resources Cuba has available should be considered treason. Leaving food to rot in fields is also very inhumane in a country where ordinary citizens have such a hard time to put food on their tables.

However, there still hasn’t been a public announcement that the government will take action against those managers responsible for harvest losses and the State bodies responsible for collecting and distributing food continue to be the same ones that sabotage the agricultural sector every year.

Speeches and slogans asking workers for greater savings will do little good, as will talk about making the most of resources available, increasing production or reducing imports, while the government isn’t able to lead by example in a country where food is such a sensitive issue for the population.

With the money the farm bureaucracy loses the problem of milk consumption could be resolved. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

17 thoughts on “What Cuba Loses Because of its Incompetent Farm Bureaucracy

  • Charles, I believe you are confusing your observations with the “self-sufficiency-because-your-government-just-as-soon-have-you-starve” gene refined through the millenia within our sense of survival….

  • Those gardens prove my point. They’re a tiny slice of Cuba’s cultivated land and they produce MANY times more produce per acre than the gigantic government farms. They’re the perfect example of how completely broken, screwed-up and utterly inept the entire Cuban system is.

  • I saw something else that made me optimistic for the future of Cuba’s agriculture. Many of the large apartment complexes are surrounded by extensive organic gardens. As I recall, they are organized as cooperatives. Teams of people could be seen working hard to care for the gardens. They took great pride in their work and it showed, because the gardens were immaculate. No weeds to be found. They did a great job composting to make fertilizer. Despite your doubts, I believe Cuba would best achieve agricultural self- sufficiency by building upon the success of its small-scale farming ventures. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.

  • Yes, yes, I know the fields you are talking about. Their yield would barely satisfy the demands of the state. Your initials accurately describe what you are good at.
    By the way, “BJ”, thanks for the offer to “educate” me, but as you know, since I am a “know it all”, I’ll try to help you out instead. This article from Smithsonian.com should put you in your place:

  • 1.) “… I think the government is trying to give land to people who will farm it, which I think is a great idea…”

    Nope, that’s not happening except in a few isolated cases. The vast majority of farming is still controlled by the huge government operations.

    2.) “… Also, based on my limited observations and talking with local farmers, I think the government has mostly left alone small family farms…”

    The only reason those small farms are left alone is so the owners and their families won’t starve. But this is no help whatsoever with feeding most of the 11,000,000 people on the island.

    3.) “… If family farms would get organized and approach the government they might get some important help…”

    With all due respect Charles that’s laughably naive. The government listens to no one. My neighbour spent 4 months in jail because he got caught selling less than 3 bushels of avocados without government permission.

  • I’m not saying the Cuban government is completely wrong. I think the government is trying to give land to people who will farm it, which I think is a great idea. Also, based on my limited observations and talking with local farmers, I think the government has mostly left alone small family farms. If family farms would get organized and approach the government they might get some important help.

  • “… I think a big mistake is planting 500 acres of tomatoes…”

    Then you’re saying that the Cuban government is completely wrong in their approach of huge government owned and operated farming entities and that it should be returned to the hands of private farmers.

    I’m 100% agreement with you that tearing down this entire aspect of the Revolution and completely reversing everything the Castros did to ruin this aspect of Cuba’s productivity. No argument whatsoever.

  • I think a big mistake is planting 500 acres of tomatoes. It requires the organization of too many people. Better to have 100 five acre plots of tomatoes each one managed by a family farm.

  • Just to educate you a trifle, my account’s included the Dole Plantation, Wahiawa, The Bishop Estate and Alexander and Baldwin (sugar.) Although not as strong as the fifties, while I was living on Oahu, both sugar and pineapple were still being planted and harvested. I was involved with the earth satellite station in Kahuku and sold lease channels to the aforementioned. Calling you a “know it all” would be easy so I will refrain.

  • Ironically, the problem with US farming is that trade has made domestic crops mostly superflous. One argument made for subsidizing (which is the only way most farming can stay afloat) is food security.
    BTW, Wong is completely correct. Cuba cannot even keep up with domestic demand.
    I’ll take the US model any day….

  • I lived in Hawaii as well. Those fields are for tourists. Pineapples come mostly from the Phillipines. Again with the “run for office”????? It would be rude to call your comments ignorant drivel. I would never do such a thing….

  • “… This is very small scale but a good place to start building a large scale distribution system…”

    You just made my point for me. I’m not talking about a few small farmers sharing between them and selling at the local market, I’m talking about feeding the country. Distributing food on a national level to 11,000,000+ people. That’s what has failed miserably and has resulted in uncountable thousands of tons of food rotting away every year. That’s ridiculous and inexcusable on a fertile island.

    The government’s inaction has been unconscionable.

  • I saw the food distribution system in Pinar del Rio as well as many little farms like your Finca Marta. A dozen homes surround a field and the families share it. Some people specialize in pork, others in delivering raw milk to homes, some people bring in seafood from the coast. Private cars are used. This is very small scale but a good place to start building a large scale distribution system. Do you have a better idea? If so, I hope it doesn’t involve modeling on the US system.

  • Pretty sad, indeed! I lived in Hawaii, and to drive through the plantation fields daily was a gift. Cuba, so much more fertile and what a disaster. Said it before, you should run for office, Fernando, maybe not today but surely sooner than later.

  • 1.) “… I saw evidence of an extensive and quite sophisticated network of food distribution…”

    How is that possible, Charles? Where did you see this extensive and sophisticated network?

    Many times there’s no trucks to transport the produce, and the trucks that are available have no refrigeration units. Or the diesel hasn’t been delivered to even start their engines. The massive warehouses to hold the harvest have air conditioners that have been broken for years, and there’s no pallets to hold the harvest because they’ve all been stolen and broken up for use as building materials.

    How do you harvest a 500 acre field of tomatoes or mangos or yucca with a handful of horses and wagons? The list is literally endless.

    2.) “… I suspect there are hundreds of Finca Martas around the country…”

    If only that were true. There aren’t even dozens, let alone hundreds. I can count the fully functioning farms around Havana on one hand. That’s a travesty.

  • If you have seen it with your own eyes it must be so. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the bureaucracy was a big reason why. I know in the US our agricultural bureaucracy is a terrible burden around the necks of family farms. But to a large extent, people find ways around it. Sometimes weather interferes with a harvest, but generally harvesting a field of tomatoes should be readily doable. I watched a harvest in Cuba where a couple dozen of those one-horse carts were lined up, loaded in turn by hand, and sent off. It was very efficient. Reminded me of the Amish farmers in the US. If a crew like that were notified that tomatoes were available for the taking they would be right onto the job and then find a market. I saw evidence of an extensive and quite sophisticated network of food distribution. Sometimes farmers just pull a loaded cart up beside the road in a good spot and start selling. I suspect there are hundreds of Finca Martas around the country and if I were running the ag bureaucracy the first thing I would do is give them the trucks and grant money to expand their farms.

  • I doubt food is rotting in the fields in Cuba. I had the opportunity eight years ago to visit rural Cuba with a friend fluent in Spanish. We stayed with a family in a farming area. Every family had some sort of agricultural enterprise going that appeared to have very little supervision from the government. Someone went around with a team of oxen and did a fantastic job of plowing fields. I think Cuba needs more oxen; not tractors. My humble opinion about how Cuba could best improve its agricultural output would be to turn the farmers loose to build on the systems they already have in operation. I was told the farmers had supported the revolution and were pretty much allowed to continue the family farms system that had been in effect before the revolution. I’m a small farmer myself in the US so know a little bit what to look for. The local people were very hard working and very astute about their food supply. Nothing was wasted. Your picture of the oxen, teamster and boy is beautiful. The picture of the people pouring milk shows a couple of those one-horse two-wheeled carts that are everywhere. They are made in Cuba by local people. Why don’t you write an article about the milk production and delivery system?

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