October 2, 2008

Cuban Food Supplies in Short Supply After Prices Fixed – Daily

Text of report by Cuban Communist-youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde website on 1 October

[Report by Marianela Martin, Rocio Trujillo, Amaury E. Del Valle, and Luis Raul Vazquez, with photos by Roberto Suarez: "Cuba's Agricultural Product Dilemma" All quotation marks as published.]

"I have been all over Havana looking for malanga [yam-like root vegetable] for a child and there is none to be found anywhere!"

In this way, angry in the full midday sun, the man leaving the market on 19th and 42d streets in the capital city's Playa municipality put on his helmet and left in a rush, without even wanting to identify himself.

Others like him arrived in the different supply and demand agricultural-livestock markets throughout the country yesterday morning, only to find that many of the products that were in on the board were no longer in stands...and there were no vendors, either.

After the new regulations for these establishments, published in Granma on Monday, 29 September, limits were set for the price of 16 basic products in the diet of Cuban homes, such as vegetables, rice, beans, and other products.

This means that prices cannot surpass the amounts stipulated, which are published in each place and take as a reference the prices charged before hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit Cuba.

The measure also includes regulating the number of pounds or units of a given product that can be sold per person to prevent hoarding and speculation. Only 10 pounds of rice and tubers will be sold to each customer, in addition to five pounds of beans and 10 bulbs of garlic, in an attempt to prevent the activities of middlemen and resellers who prevent the people from getting their hands on certain foods.

Given the production deficit that Cuban agriculture is suffering from and the losses it caused by weather phenomena, this effort seeks to alleviate the scarcity, especially of tubers and vegetables, of the coming months.

However, many salespeople and even some consumers have not fully understood these rules, as this Tuesday, 30 October, several supply and demand markets remained almost deserted or with a very scant "supply."

In search of the reasons for this situation, a team from Juventud Rebelde visited these centres last week, before the new price capping regulations were implemented, and on Tuesday, listening to opinions on all sides.

Weighing the Unknown

Original caption: "Left, a supply and demand market on 19th and B this past Saturday. Right, the same market on Tuesday. Yesterday several supply and demand markets were almost deserted or had a very poor 'supply' though they had products previously." (Juventud Rebelde, 1 October)

The Cuatro Caminos Single Market was not the same this Tuesday compared to what we saw last week, when there was a multitude of vendors with high prices and beans that cost as much as 17 pesos per pound, enough to scare away anybody wanting to make a stew, though it must be said that they would not have even been able to add pumpkin to it due to the unaffordable price.

The situation had changed on Tuesday. The market opened late. "First we had a meeting with all vendors to explain the measure to them. Some understood it well, but others did not. Then, can you imagine, the majority of them opened. What are they going to do," Jose Bonet, administrator of the central hall, explained to us.

One only needs to look at the snapshots taken from above on both days to see that yesterday morning, even during regular work hours, there were far more people than last Friday or Saturday. But the landscape did change as we approached the stalls.

The dominant tendency was fewer products, lower quality, and even the bean "waste," in a scenario in which inspectors were in on the lookout for irregularities and the failure to comply with regulations.

"There has not been much variety since the hurricane, but we are grateful that the prices of some products were lowered, as that is good for our pocketbooks," said the 61-year-old Maria Rodriguez, a regular customer at Cuatro Caminos.

For his part, another senior citizen, the 81-year-old Lazaro Suarez, believes that while the prices are "almost" in line with the situation, many of them continue to be too expensive. And there was no lack of people from the other side like the stall owner Ivan - just that, without wanting to give his surname - who sold the "leftovers" of malanga amidst customers' protests and justified himself by saying that "that was the price that the state set, so it is not my fault."

In her market stall, Marem Heredia complained that "I was not told about this situation and when I arrived I had to mark my products down. It is true that this benefits the population, but I had already bought a certain amount of cabbage and it will no longer give me the same profit because I bought it at a high price. Yesterday I was selling it by the unit and now I have to sell it for 2 pesos per pound."

Meanwhile, Maikel Perez affirmed that the measure also leaves very little margin for "commercial management," because if I want to sell my 2-peso garlic for 1.50 pesos to get rid of it faster I cannot, because an inspector could come and fine me. Though it might benefit the population, the regulation says that one must be strict about selling them for 1, 2, or 3 pesos, and the worst of it is that the size is dependent on the inspectors' eyes."

Neither these opinions nor the situations that were experienced there were exclusive to this market in central Havana. If last week the hurricane meant that there were depressed supplies in markets like the ones on 19th and 42d in Playa, 19th and B in Vedado, Egido and Zulueta in Habana Vieja, in the Plaza de Marianao, in the one in Tulipan, or in the Santo Suarez market, then the majority of stands were almost empty this Tuesday.

Julia Elena Sigler was looking at a sign in the market on 19th and 42d in the capital when she confessed to us that what is being sold is still expensive, but that it is worse when there are almost no products. "I am aware of the objective causes of the scarcity because the hurricanes explain everything and only yesterday they said on television that 70 per cent of plantains had been damaged and that something similar had happened to the yucca. I know that hurricanes have hit from one end to the other, but prices were through the roof from before then. I am a retiree who receives 200 pesos and that is not enough for anything."

The Board is One thing, the Stand Another

Original caption: "Supply and demand agricultural markets, like state markets, must post their prices, and both have places to verify weights. Any complaint may be addressed to the telephone numbers given for that purpose." (Juventud Rebelde, 1 October)

There was a similar situation in other parts of the country. On a tour of nine sales points for urban agriculture in the city of Ciego de Avila last Saturday, 27 September, for example, all but one (in the city centre, two blocks from the train station) had a good supply with quite a bit of variety.

Of course, there was no lack of tricks to break the established rules. As in the supply and demand market, the list price at the state markets was not the same as the price that customers were charged.

Guava cost between 2 and 3 pesos per pound (the list price was 45 cents), boniato was 2 pesos (list price 40 or 45 [cents]), yucca cost 1.50 or 2 pesos (when the price is 65 cents), malanga 4 pesos, and plantains were being offered for 3-4 per peso, not by the pound.

The majority of stalls were closed at the supply and demand market beneath Elevados de Ciego de Avila, while at the ones that were open garlic was being sold for 2 pesos (they were very small, tiny) and onions (with the same appearance) were listed at 2 pesos on the board but cost 3 in the stall.

A woman protested and the vendor shamelessly told her that he would change the price "when I am given a piece of chalk and an eraser."

At one urban agriculture sales point in the centre of town, on Honourato del Castillo Street between Serafin Sanchez and Bembeta, our reporter tried to buy two pounds of boniato for 40 cents, as it said on the board. When he went to pay with 2 pesos, the saleswoman told him: "The boniato costs 2 pesos." And in reaction to his surprised face and question regarding the price of 40 cents on the blackboard, a man who was there broke out in laughter and clarified: "Boniato for cents disappeared a long time ago."

The same situation could be observed in the other sales points: one price on the board and another, the real one, at the stand. At the only one that was out of stock, the one at the train station, they explained that they could not sell because they were guided by a lower official price and, for example, they offered yucca at a peso per pound.

The nine sales points were checked again after the publication of the Granma editorial. Two were closed and the rest - except one - were very understocked. There was no variety to be seen, to the point that it looked like they had been turned into flower stalls, given the number of sunflowers and gladiolas on sale.

One of them, in Ortiz neighbourhood near the Rene Ramos ESBU [Basic Secondary Urban School], had a certain amount of variety but was offering yucca for more then the official price of 1 peso: one woman bought close to five pounds and was charged 6 pesos.

Where is the Supplier?

Imagen muestra precio de la cebolla

Original caption: "The price of onions (left) went from 20 pesos per pound to a maximum of 10 pesos per pound." (Juventud Rebelde, 1 October)

Rolando Montes de Oca has been going to the supply and demand markets for 12 years and is not thinking of leaving them, because "now I will not earn the same, but I will still turn a profit."

Yesterday he went to the one on 19th and 42d with guava, avocados, and sour oranges. "Whatever I could get. I used to go to Marianao and buy more. Now I think that we are going to have problems because of the lack of suppliers, but there is no problem with the price cap. We understand that it is not fair for anybody to take advantage of the situation to abuse people."

However, not all of the vendors think alike. For some the "measure is abusive." But a simple look at the numbers says otherwise.

One only needs to look at the capped prices established in Havana's supply and demand markets this Tuesday to realize that profits will suffer, but that they will not suffer the "losses" that many stall owners say they will if middlemen are really controlled.

For example, square plantains should be sold in state markets for 80 cents and for 2 pesos in supply and demand ones. There is a similar difference between the other products, as all of the prices that are capped in centres with free sales continue to be considerably higher than those established for the state sector and the Agriculture Ministry sales points.

So - and beyond the scarcity caused by the hurricanes - why are many stands almost empty?

Jose Luis Gonzalez, the administrator of the market on 19th and 42d, considers that the price caps are not the reason why stall owners have not come. What has affected them most is that as private individuals they have always bought their merchandise in a sales point supplied by middlemen operating illegally and with their elimination they have been left without suppliers.

The thing is that from their beginning supply and demand markets - due to the circumstances that gave rise to them - presented the defect that vendors did not have to accredit the origins of what they were selling.

"The people who come here are natural merchants," explained Yulian Sanchez Chacon, the administrator at 19th and B. They just have to bring their ID card, make a sworn statement, and pay a 10 per cent tax on the value of declared sales, nothing else."

[Juventud Rebelde] They do not have to prove where the product comes from?

[Sanchez] No. They buy from middlemen anywhere and bring their product here. It is not our problem where they products they sell come from.

Of course, anybody could become a market stall vendor without having to prove the origin of the merchandise.

In fact, several inspections undertaken before the implementation of these new measures proved that some trucks with products allocated to priority destinations like hospitals and schools or else intended for sale in state markets had diverted part of their contents when faced with the powerful call of Don Money.

Perhaps that also explains - to a great degree - the "robustness" of the yuccas, tomatoes, or garlic in supply and demand markets when compared to what is offered in state sales points, which look like they have been hit by several hurricanes in a row.

"The thing is that middlemen buy the best from farmers so it can be sold more expensively and there are people who prioritize those earnings and give the collection system quantity, but not always quality," a stall owner who preferred not to give his name told us.

And What about the Trucks

While the "supply and demand" markets were visibly empty this Tuesday, many state markets and agricultural sales points were not much better off than they were several days ago, a situation that got worse this Tuesday.

When interviewed by Juventud Rebelde, Mateo Pereira recognized that he had visited several state markets without finding what he was looking for. "I went to Santa Catalina and 10 de Octubre and the only thing that I saw was avocado and some "tiny" little plantains."

In the market known as "the EJT's [Youth Labour Army]" in Tulipan, Plaza de la Revolucion municipality, a few malangas, boniato, and a lot of vinegar and dry wine welcomed those who had believed that the scarcities affecting the supply and demand stall owners would be translated into greater supplies in state markets.

"The trucks no longer go to other places, no? So where are then?" an old man asked himself.

Mario Emilio Morales, the administrator of the Santo Suarez supply and demand market, also affirmed that many middlemen do not want to go to sell out of fear of being intercepted by the authorities.

The reason for these operations is to detect illegal acts on the part of the intermediaries, many of whom would divert part of their cargo allocated to priority centres. However, now the people are asking themselves where they are.

Paula Julia Miyorquis Gomez, the administrator of the Plaza State Agricultural Market in Cerro municipality, believes that for now they cannot compare, "because we have not received any trucks other than the ones that regularly supply us with products.

"Today we received boniato, yucca, pumpkin, rice, and black beans. All of our products are regulated and buyers are not showing anxiety. Everything is normal." And she explained to us that her "normality" is a market that is not as empty as others and with much less variety than on other occasions.

"All market administrators from the capital were summoned to a meeting and we were given a series of instructions to reorganize certain 'loose ends.'

"At least there is a certain amount of black beans, which the state will allocate so that the markets do not have any problems with this product, in addition to a several tons of rice so it can remain stable and within reach of the population."

Collection System must Collect More

Untying the Gordian knot of the sale of agricultural products in Cuba requires more determination than what Alexander the Great displayed when he used his sword, because in this case not even a clean cut is enough.

Jorge Luis Sanchez, the director of the Agricultural Collection System in La Habana province who now bears the burden of "feeding" the capital as well as contributing to Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud, affirms that the territory will produce close to 20 million quintals [1 quintal = 46 kg] of tubers, vegetable and grains this year and that no small proportion of it will correspond to potatoes.

The challenge is to achieve control over existing farmer production so it can be allocated according to the balances of the National Collection Union. Only then will diversions be stopped.

"We have to sell with the quality and the agreed-upon prices and watch out to ensure that there are no diversions from the state agricultural-livestock markets to other ones, including the black market. We have to fight against hoarders, which is why we are limiting sales, especially of grains and tubers, so there can be supplies all of the time."

Upon referring to the vein that feeds the black market and the middlemen who stock the supply and demand markets, Jorge Luis says that, among other factors, their origin lies with the weakness in the contracts with producers," since they are drafted based on historic production, taking previous years as a reference point when product might not have even been planted yet.

"The collection system needs to pay producers a stimulating price. Currently the prices of malanga, plantain, boniato, and yucca are attractive in La Habana province. In fact, some [farmers] have said that they no longer need to go to the market and are not interested in dealing with middlemen."

For his part, Manuel Aguero, deputy director of the National Collection Union, recognizes that farmers select their production and that they often allocate the best to where they will obtain the highest profit, which for now means the middlemen.

That is why beginning next year they country's policy regarding production and commercialization will gradually be transformed and the new framework will seek for the best products to be sent to the State Agricultural-Livestock Markets.

"The productive structures - CCS [Credit and Services Cooperative], CPA [Agricultural-Livestock Cooperatives], and UBPC [Basic Cooperative Production Unit] - will be able to handle social consumption at nearby centres and will sell their products to the population at sales points for logical and fair prices. The Collection System will concentrate as much as it can on state markets, to the degree that its logistics allow.

"The collection system will also sign contracts with the total universe of producers, including the new holders of land in usufruct. Contracting does not mean that we will buy everything, but rather that we will determine the destination for each product along with the Agriculture Ministry delegations in each territory."

The executive says that the new structure will oblige the Collection System to rigorously comply with the contracting, as that will prevent products from not being sent to their planned destinations. "We have shown weakness; we are not always demanding and apply what has been stipulated."

As far as rice is concerned, the Ministry of Finance and Prices and the Agriculture Ministry, along with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), have adopted measures. The purchase price for producers was increased, including a margin of difference between [rice] that is raw, dry, and for consumption.

"We have information that delivery of this product to the rice CAIs [Agro-industrial Rice Complex], which are in charge of processing it, has increased," Manuel affirmed.

Respect has no Deadline

Several months will still have to pass before these measures to stimulate agricultural production have an effect, during which time the country will have to recover from the effect of the hurricanes and the accumulation of multiple problems in agriculture.

This is why the emergency situation has been to control distribution to prevent hoarding and speculation, while at the same time reinforcing oversight mechanisms for stall owners in agricultural markets.

Jose Ramon Medina, an integrated oversight inspector for the provincial administrative council, explains that a digital scale was placed in every market to verify merchandise, both what the vendors have declared as well as for what consumers buy.

"The Domestic Trade Ministry met with administrators and inspectors to explain not just what we were supposed to do, but also the reasons why these regulations are being implemented. The idea is not to upbraid the vendors so they will disappear; it is to ensure that the rules are complied with."

Jose Enrique Rosillo, who is also an inspector, clarifies that "for vendors to be fined they must commit a serious violation, such as cheating the state, swindling consumers, or selling at a price that is other than the established one.

"As long as this system is in place we must be more and more demanding, rigorous, and consistent, because while people say that some regulations are limited to a certain period of time that has been associated with the recovery of agriculture, there is no deadline for respecting the population, which is permanent."

"The state is making an enormous effort not to leave the people defenceless, which is why we will not tolerate speculators," Domestic Trade Minister Francisco Silva Herrera explained to Juventud Rebelde.

"At the same time, in addition to the inspectors, Domestic Trade Ministry representatives have been sent to the supply and demand markets and are regulating the state ones to prevent illegal acts."

All of these measures are aimed at a better distribution of what little there is. But the problem continues to be the lack of agricultural production, now more than ever after the disastrous impact of Gustav and Ike.

"Capping" prices is an emergency solution....not the definitive "solution."

Originally published by Juventud Rebelde website, Havana, in Spanish 1 Oct 08.

(c) 2008 BBC Monitoring Americas. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.