Friday, November 30, 2012

Cuba's Agriculture: Relativity and Time

Cuba's Agriculture: Relativity and Time
November 30, 2012
Fernando Ravsberg*

HAVANA TIMES — Administrators of the Ministry of Agriculture say that
four years is too little an amount of time for any changes in that area,
but I can't believe they required 48 months to determine that campesinos
needed to have their homes located on their farms.

In a recent press conference, these officials announced that they had
eliminated the ban on building homes on land distributed in usufruct so
that campesinos wouldn't have to live in the city and commute every
morning to work their fields.

That loose concept of time may explain why they're still continuing to
"study" the issue of the distribution and marketing of agricultural
products. Notwithstanding, this overly centralized form of production —
monopolized by agencies for half a century — has given ample proof of
its inefficiency.

The administrators didn't want to talk about this; they simply repeated
over and over again that "it's not the topic of this press conference."
This came as a great surprise since most farmers believe that to be the
main obstacle of Cuban agriculture.

For an example, we foreign journalists explained what's happening with
milk, whose price has been reduced to a third of what's established by
the government. However the officials only talked about the quality of
that product using technical arguments that are difficult to confirm.

Nevertheless campesinos are very pragmatic and have years of experience
in dealing with bureaucrats; so if they're not paid what's agreed on,
they'll sell their milk on the black market, where there's always
someone willing to pay its true value.

Roads are a good barometer of what's happening. When the government
began to pay cheese vendors more, they disappeared from the highways.
Now they're back, and in force, even in places that aren't traditionally
cattle-raising areas.

Nevertheless the administrators of the nation's agriculture assured us
that reform is proceeding smoothly, though they refused to give us
figures about how much is being produced by the new farmers – the
150,000 campesinos who have just received land in usufruct.

These specialists say that agricultural development has to be measured
qualitatively, not quantitatively; they also talk about "impacts,"
gibberish that seems to have the sole purpose of hiding figures that
would allow the measurement of the effectiveness of the work of MINAGRI.

The problem is that people don't eat "impacts" – they eat fruits,
vegetables and meat. The only "impact" they experience is that felt by
the increasingly higher prices at agricultural markets, where a pound of
potatoes now costs $2 USD in some places.

The problem isn't that there's no food in the streets; the agro markets
are full, fixed-location sales stalls are multiplying and cart-pushing
vendors are crisscrossing the neighborhoods touting their products.
Never since the time when I first arrived in Cuba have I ever seen so
much food – but never has it been so expensive.

Part of the explanation is that many farmers are evading
commercialization that goes through the government because of the low
prices it pays, in addition to delays and inefficiency when it comes
time to for harvesting crops, which can lead to substantial losses.

Because of this, much of the food produced in Cuba moves within a
semi-legal spectrum in which intermediaries and the black marketeers
jack-up the prices, with these players earning much more than campesinos
or bled-dry consumers.

While all of this is being experienced by people on the street, MINAGRI
administrators are continuing to "study" the issue of marketing. They
may require six or seven years of analysis because it's an issue that's
even more complex than authorizing the construction of homes on farms.

A person would be led to believe that this ministry is composed of a
small group of people over their heads in work, but the truth is that
this office has hundreds of thousands of employees. The problem is that
most of them are engaged in paper shuffling.

After the press conference, I kept thinking about the theory of
relativity. Four years for an ordinary person equals 1,460 days of daily
struggle for them to put at plate of food on the table. Obviously
administrators see things different from how consumers do.

(*) See Fernando Ravsberg's blog (in Spanish).

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