Cuba's Produce Market Maze (II)
May 18, 2010
HAVANA TIMES, May 18 — A great deal of controversy has been created by
an agricultural marketing experiment in the two Havana provinces.
Resulting food shortages at markets have forced producers —the majority
of whom use pejorative descriptions when they refer to the current
system— to voice urgent demands for changes and adjustments.
"What's needed is to get food from the field to the Cuban dinner table
as directly as possible, without so many intermediary steps – like the
current nine diabolical ones that exist now," said Havana-area farmer
Lazaro Hernandez, who is president of the Antonio Maceo Cooperative of
Credits and Services in Bejucal.
"With the chain being so long, losses occur because the products wither
away, losing approximately two percent of their weight per day," he
explained. "If they're delayed five days in getting to the consumer,
they'll lose ten percent of their mass, which costs in terms of shipping
expenses for fertilizers and oil."
I checked on this at the weighing station in Bejucal, where deliveries
to the capital were held up for three days waiting for trucks to
transport six tons of cabbage, a product that dehydrates quickly.
On an individual level, the losses for the producers are significant.
Hernandez gave the example of the case of guava, which the Ministry of
Domestic Trade wants green at the time of shipping, since it rots with
delays in getting it to market. However it's better for the producers
to sell it when it's ripe, because this fruit gains 20 percent of its
final weight in its last 48 hours before full maturation.
"So, when we deliver 100 quintals of green guavas, we lose the
opportunity to sell 20 more quintals that we could have picked when the
fruit was ripe. Plus, the public likes to buy guava that's turning ripe
or mature. It's the same thing with watermelon; however, if we ship
these out when they're mature and then there's a three or four day
delay, they rot and have to be sent it to the pigsty," said Hernandez.
Notwithstanding, Yosbel Gonzalez, the president of a nearby State
agricultural entity, thinks things have not gone so bad under the
current centralized distribution scheme.
"I look at it favorably with regard to the previous system; it's better
organized. Sure there's a need to better gear the mechanisms and
heighten the concern of those people in charge of marketing production
so that better quality product gets to the consumers more quickly. But
if everything works right, the system will achieve that."
No containers mean poor handling
The issue of the containers used for transporting the harvest not
returning is one of the Achilles heels of the current structure. It
affects the scheduling of the harvest, the transport of products and
especially the quality of the produce.
Rebeca Grimalt, a 20-year veteran at the Ministry of Agriculture and an
economic specialist with the Agricultural Products Commercialization
Unit in Bejucal, assures that MINCIN (Internal Commerce Ministry) does
not return the containers. "Our books show the number of containers in
our inventory continuing to increase, but we don't have them on hand."
"During the current tomato harvest, we've had to load almost all
tomatoes in 300-pound crates that are usually used for industrial
products. That type of large container causes the product to
deteriorate; plus they make commercialization difficult, because you can
only move these crates mechanically," added Grimalt.
Ramon Peña, the director of the Storage Unit, pointed out that: "There
also exist problems of organization and control. Some things need to be
adjusted, among them transportation, which arrives late and affects the
quality of the products."
Successes and contradictions
Surprisingly, the current system of commercialization relies on a
logistical base that is superior to the preceding one. The company that
serves the agricultural markets for the city of Havana, for example,
previously had a fleet of only 76 trucks; now it has 200.
Another of its virtues is the more equitable distribution. The capital
city's Weighing and Purchasing Unit distributes the goods in portions to
the State markets (MAE) so that all the municipalities are covered.
Nevertheless, the contradiction between supply and demand have been at
the center of discussion because the commerce ministry works with a
focus on consumer demand, but that is not the signal that farmers want
to use to direct their planting. Also, owing to rigid price mechanisms
and policies, if there exists a production peak and the farmers
oversupply beyond their commitment, the established approach is for this
surplus to be sold directly to the industry, even if it is prime quality.
Several marketing specialists agree that quality is the key point of
commercialization. Frequently, when they inspect trucks coming from the
principal markets they have to continually demand better quality.
Idael Saserio, a commercial specialist with the Weighing and Purchasing
Unit in Bejucal, defends the current system tooth and nail. He doesn't
share the opinion that the farmers should deliver their products
directly to the sales points. "The supply and demand markets are an
outrage; it's highway robbery. If they're better supplied, it's not the
fault of the State mechanisms; we don't receive the same things as them,
not in variety nor in quality."
"We have to unite the mechanisms to fight them head on, we can't let
them win. It's true that the unregulated markets are an alternative,
but they've never functioned properly. The day they decide to close
them, the state markets will have some of everything, because the
farmers will continue producing," said Saserio.
The valley of the shadows
In a worrisome choir, the State market vendors complained about the
recent impact of the shortage of commodities on their income. "Incentive
pay is based on sales, but if there aren't any products, how can we
fulfill our plan?" asked Leosdan Capote, a vendor in the La Lisa
community. He says that since this commercialization system went into
effect —almost one year ago— he received an incentive payment for only
one month (December).
"We work from Monday to Sunday, and the basic wage is 250 pesos a month
(about $10 USD)," Leosdan complained. "However, the greatest concern
about this irregularity is in that what suffers most are the consumers'
pockets and refrigerators. Like the old saying goes, the rope always
breaks at its weakest point," the vendor concluded.