Why Cuban Agriculture Is Inefficient / Iván García
Ivan Garcia, 19 May 2016 — The raindrops tinkle on the zinc roof of a
greasy hut used to store sacks of fertilizer, agricultural tools, and
the various ancient contraptions that are always be a nuisance to keep
in the house.
Osvaldo, the sixty-five-year-old owner of a farm southeast of Havana,
calmly takes a drag on a cigarette butt, scratches his head with his
thick fingers, which look like twisted meat hooks, and asks his son,
"Where the hell have you left the wrench to open the water pump?" Then,
once the engine has been started, he runs through the rain back to the
entrance of his house.
Before answering a question as to why Cuban agriculture is incapable of
supplying people with enough food, he takes a swig of coffee and rocks
back and forth in his iron chair. He then tells me:
"No point in beating about the bush. It's the government's fault that
agriculture doesn't work. I have lost count of the number of measures
and strategies the agricultural directors have drawn up. The problem is
that you can't grow a crop sitting behind an office desk. Every piece of
farmland is different. The amount of sweet potatoes or beef cannot be
planned from an office in Havana."
He continues unwrapping his opinions about the black hole in the
nation's agriculture. "The land is for the peasants. If the government
wants to buy everfything that's harvested, they need to pay a fair price
for it. Now they have promised to pay properly, but two or three months
down the line Acopio (Cuba's state procurement and distribution
agency) and other government departments start to fall behind on their
payments. In my case, they owe me 20 to 30 thousand pesos. The Havana
middlemen buy your entire harvest, in cash."
Osvaldo is aware that shortages breed speculation. "But the government
needs to get real. They sell everything at very high prices to
individual farmers — fuel, seed, working clothes — and the agricultural
equipment is of poor quality. Also, times have changed. Now, nobody
wants to work on the land. Everyone is going to Havana or Miami. And
when it comes to hiring workers to gather the harvest, you have to pay
at least a hundred pesos a day. That drives up the cost of what you've
harvested. If the government gave the land to the people who are working
it, in Cuba, the food that they produced would be for export".
When you speak to private farmers, people working in co-operatives or
tenants, their opinions vary, but most of them believe that, to increase
the harvests, you have to first create appropriate living and working
"I lost about a hundred pounds of bananas and sweet potatoes because
Acopio couldn't provide enough transport," observes a farmer with a
credit and service cooperative, who prefers to remain anonymous. "It's a
joke. They have some honest people but most of the officials there are
When Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, he began applying
countless forms of production management to Cuban agriculture, from huge
state farms and cooperatives to land leases.
But harvests did not increase. Bureaucrats always come up with excuses
to explain the shortfalls. They blame the unchecked greed of middlemen,
hurricanes, rain or drought.
Though intended to alleviate the deficit, targeted price controls
quickly generate even greater shortages instead. But there could be
other reasons as well. Economist Juan Triana Cordoví cannot be accused
of being of a dissident. But in his article "Price Caps", published in
On Cuba Magazine, Triana tries to find answers to the riddle. For this
economist, prices controls are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are other explanations. According to Triana, if you compare
produce production in 2005 to that of 2009, you will find that harvests
were, on average, was 15% smaller. With respect to potatoes, the drop
was 50%. In the case of vegetables, the average rate of growth in this
same period did not exceed 1% while tomato production fell 30%.
In 2009, 34,558 hectares of produce were planted (4,245 of which were
potatoes), while only 16,494 hectares were planted in 2014 (596 of which
were potatoes). In short, in 2009 — the latest year for which data is
available — there was 50% less produce and 14% less potatoes planted. In
2009, 32,174 hectares were planted while in 2014 only 21,397 hectares
were planted. This amounts to 66% of what had been planted just five
Less acreage under cultivation, lower yields, increased demand, higher
costs… "What else can we expect but for prices to go up?" asks Triana.
But the government is only thinking in the short term. Faced with
complaints from millions of its citizens, the solution is a home remedy
to relieve the pain while it continues to postpone the radical solution
that Cuban agriculture needs.
Average Cubans approve of the new measures the state has taken to cap
prices and close El Trigal wholesale market south of Havana. On May 13
Martí Noticias toured fifteen produce markets — some state-run; some
private, leased or cooperative operations.
In the markets with price controls, the chalkboards indicated nine to
fifteen items for sale. Tomatoes, on average, cost 2 pesos per pound.
Guava was priced at 1.5 to 3 pesos, a banana went for 2 pesos, and
cassava and sweet potato sold for 1 peso per pound.
The privately-run markets had more variety, were cleaner and provided
better quality, though the prices were twice as high. For example, two
Caney mangoes cost 30 pesos while a six-pound melon went for 25 pesos.
Osvaldo, the peasant quoted above, believes that price controls will not
increase farm production. And he is sticking to his theory: "When the
land belongs to the peasants, and they are allowed to import and export
without having to rely on the state, there will be more than enough
food," he says.
In no country with an autocratic government — whether it be Vietnam,
China or the former Soviet Union — did state-control of the land work.
Cuba is hardly an exception.
Translated by GH
Source: Why Cuban Agriculture Is Inefficient / Iván García – Translating