Cuban farmers in ‘agony’ waiting for promised reforms

A man carries bags of maize at a wholesale market in Havana


The government’s decision to reassert control over food distribution has led to tomatoes Cuban Farmerand bananas rotting in the fields in the province of Artemisa, two farmers said, because government trucks do not arrive on time to collect harvests.

Such problems bode poorly for foreign companies looking to find a new market in Cuba as the United States relaxes its investment restrictions.

The four-day congress starting on Saturday will signal whether President Raul Castro’s government recommits to its reforms or whether conservatives who want to slow the move away from socialist economics gain more ground.

Castro has in the past scolded mid-ranking officials and party cadres for resisting change, but the spike in prices and rising inequality gave traditionalists ammunition in their fight to slow things down.

Plans to transform thousands of small and medium-sized state businesses into cooperatives have run into a wall of bureaucratic tangles and stalling.

A mid-level public administrator in Havana said only 25 of 120 state-run eateries in the city that were supposed to become cooperatives have made the switch.

“They need to take credible action to move forward more quickly. In politics there is a clock ticking, one of economic expectations, especially since December 2014 when normalization with the United States began,” said Raul Hernandez, editor of Temas, a reform-oriented magazine.

Cubans rely heavily on creativity to find transport, afford and purchase basics like toilet paper and detergent, or parts for their bicycles, motorcycles and cars.

Many are hopeful that measures such as unifying Cuba’s dual currencies will finally be implemented after the congress.

For now, farmers and small businesses – like the restaurant visited by U.S. President Barack Obama in Havana last month – have to purchase supplies at retail prices, raising their costs. Others turn to the black market.

In a move to quell the griping, the government on Tuesday unveiled a plan to allow some cooperatives and small businesses, including restaurants, to buy supplies from producers and wholesalers. The measures do not include any private businesses not formerly in state hands.

The reticence to unleash private sector demand in part reflects Cuba’s weak public finances because the government has a monopoly on foreign trade so must bear the cost of imports.

Cuba has improved its financial credibility over the last five years, running trade and current account surpluses and restructuring $50 billion in mainly old debt.

But weak global commodity prices have hit income from the sale of professional services to allied oil producing nations such as Venezuela, making it harder for Cuba to buy imports such as the farm products Martin would like to buy wholesale.

Snack shop owner Juan Perez said he benefited from reforms that allow him to run a business, but that the high cost of ingredients mean he and his wife and two grown children net a total of only around $150 a month.

At a junction in Guanajay, a town in Artemisa province, he offers a small menu of juice, coffee, rolls with ham and mayonnaise, and pudding.

“We used to do a good business selling pizza. But we had to go to Havana in search of tomato sauce, flour and cheese when we got word it had appeared on the shelves. Many times it was gone when we arrived. We gave up,” he said.

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