Cuba's Produce Market Maze
May 16, 2010
HAVANA TIMES, May 16 — "This market is always deserted. It's a shame
to stop in the street and look at it these days. It used to have
everything, and good quality stuff.
Now there's next to nothing and the produce is often horrendous,"
commented an angry and exasperated customer of the State Agricultural
Market in the Havana community of La Lisa.
Her complaints are not without foundation; over the last several
months, putting a decent meal on the table now requires the talent of
a Houdini for residents of the Cuban capital.
Yolanda Aguilar, a retiree who frequents the State market at 26th and
41st streets, in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, complained about the
scarcity of many fruits. "They're invisible," she said.
"Occasionally I have to go to the 'expensive markets' to buy them,
because they're disappearing." Since their resurgence in 1994, the
independent and non-priced-controlled "supply and demand markets" have
been popularly dubbed los caros (the expensive ones). Their
astronomical prices have spawned more than a few detractors. "Those
ones, yeah, they're always well stocked. Occasionally I go there to
look for what I can't find here, things like malanga and fruit; but
other times the prices don't let me," pointed out Eddy Diaz, a shopper
at 26th and 41st market who regularly keeps his eye on the quality of
State products and criticizes how "they almost always sell them at
first-class prices though the quality is third rate."
A retiree who shops at the two types of markets in the Marianao
neighborhood, Leonarda Ricardo, assured that: "The prices in the State
markets are criminal because the quality is awful, while in the
independent ones there's everything and the quality is divine – though
the prices are through the roof. Why do the independent ones have
wonders and the State ones have nothing? That's the question everyone
is asking," she commented.
The flip side of the coin
"The lack of supply is due to the lack of production," responded
Lorenzo Rober, who has worked as a vendor at the State market on 26th
and 41st streets for a decade.
"The quantity is good enough, but there's very little variety,
especially in terms of grains and fruits. When we bought produce from
the farmers directly, the selections were better," he noted. Mykel
Vega, a young administrator at the same price-controlled agro-market,
stated that the situation improved considerably when they began buying
from urban agriculture cooperatives to supply the market. Now they
receive fresh vegetables early, direct from the field.
"We have shortages with root vegetables and plantains, but generally
an improvement can be noticed in the distribution. Better harvests
are what's necessary. If we advance in terms of production, the sales
and commercialization would align perfectly, because this system is
very well designed," added Vega.
Since August 2009, a new centralized system of commercialization has
been experimented with in two Havana provinces (Havana City and Havana
Province), though this has generated much dissatisfaction among
producers, consumers and officials in charge of distribution.
In its test phase, and with the perspective of this being generalized
across the whole country, the current design in essence prohibits
farmers from selling their products directly to the vendors in State
markets. It multiplies the intermediate links several times over and
concentrates the responsibility of distributing the goods within the
Ministry of Domestic Trade (MINCIN), a process which —in theory— is
more equitable and saves fuel.
In practice, however, the movement of produce between the field and
the dinner table has become slow and complicated, engendering
considerable losses due to waste, theft and misappropriations at
several points along the chain, productive imbalances and
irregularities in the use of transportation, including the misuse of
Alexander Bejerano, the administrator of a State market in western
Havana's La Lisa community, thinks it is necessary to review the
relationship between the farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture and the
MINCIN companies. "It's very sad, embarrassing and inconceivable to
have products in warehouses but the public can't acquire them."
Leosdan Capote, a vendor at the same agro-market, finds that "the
change has not borne fruit. There's production sure, because
independent markets have something of everything. But as for those of
us who sell to working people, we have very little."
No chicken in the chicken soup
According to Jorge Luis Tillet, the deputy administrator of the Plaza
de Marianao supply and demand market, with 10 years of experience,
"The trucks should supposedly arrive at these markets with surpluses,
after having fulfilled a State delivery plan. This is completely
violated, it's common knowledge and admitted by everybody. If this
were carried out properly there would be the quantity and necessary
variety of produce in the State markets."
A different opinion is held by some managers and workers at the
independent mercados de libre formación de precio (markets at
unregulated prices); they believe that the "missing chicken in the
chicken soup" results not from the diverting of produce that would
otherwise be directed to the community markets, because these sell
only a small part of what is produced.
This appears to be true, since in accordance with data from MINCIN,
the 33 unregulated markets in the city of Havana sell barely nine
percent of the agricultural products sold in the capital.
Around 50 tons of products daily compared to some 500 tons sold in the
310 capped-price State markets. The independent markets are better
supplied than the price-restricted State markets due only to the
mechanism that governs them, said Jose Gascon, a 15-year veteran
vendor at the Plaza de Marianao market.
"The producer comes here with their papers in order, they supply their
products and payment is made directly, in cash," he said. "We can't
remain unaware of the effects of the drought and production problems,"
he recognized. "But if to those we add the human factors that hinder
distribution, the situation becomes aggravated," he noted.
"The State commercialization mechanisms have their margin of maneuver,
but when one sees the errors they realize that these are products of
that intermediary link in the chain that is not sensitive to the
problems of the consumer. This business demands creativity, because
the merchandise deteriorates quickly and people need it."
"Food decides the Revolution. I'm a revolutionary and the things that
are happening pain me," complained Gascon with visible sincerity.
"Everyone who comes here are common people, so it's shameful that the
independent markets offer a better option than buying from the State,
which has the resources. Raul Castro said it: 'Everything is in our
hands', so…why doesn't it work?"