Almost two years ago, when the previous crisis of a shortage of pigs occurred in the El Hueco market in Camagüey they began closing stalls. It was a paralysis from which this market’s meat department – the largest in the city – has not yet recovered.
When COVID-19 arrived in the province, it had been a long time since Camagüey residents visited the extensive area of the market in which they once sold pork, mutton or rabbit.
One of the market’s manual laborers spoke with our reporter. “The most that can be found is squash, peppers and avocados. There is garlic and onions, because they are products which are stored after the harvest and last longer. However, the root crops, plantains and beans are absent. The few that come in at dawn are bought by the carretilleros (push cart vendors) and then resold in the town”.
The crisis at the el Hueco market these days has several origins. One has been the successive closures of interprovincial borders, imposed by the pandemic. Another, a more aggressive purchasing policy by the government’s Acopio purchasing agency, often to farmers disadvantage. On top of that, this year’s harvests were not up to expectations.
On various scales, history has repeated itself throughout the country. Extreme cases – geographically and temporally speaking – are Santiago de Cuba and Havana. These cities suffered a food quarantine for several weeks in April and in September. It came after the ban on cargo trucks access (in the capital, apparently, due to a mistake by local officials).
Promises, promises… yet food is still missing
At this point in the year, the island should show a quite different reality in terms of food production. At least if we are guided by the optimistic forecasts of leaders such as the Minister of Agriculture. That official spoke months ago of an unusual growth in the number of land applications and ambitious export plans.
The unfulfilled spring planting campaign (April-July) was promoted as the opportunity to guarantee most food designated for Cuban tables. Little or nothing was detailed as to the means that would be used to achieve those objectives.
More connected to reality, the deputy director of Agriculture, Carlos Martell, acknowledged a different tune by the end of April. He admitted that of the four fundamental products contemplated under the section of root crops & plantains during 2020, they were only expected to cover the demand for sweet potatoes. The foreseen harvests of plantain, cassava and malanga would satisfy at most 85%, 70% and 33% of the country’s needs.
Why aren’t Cubans eating beans?
Regarding beans, the official was even more cautious. He noted that the immediate intention would be to promote plantings (especially the cowpea or caritas variety). The idea is to undertake a sowing plan aimed at overcoming the crisis by the beginning of next year.
At the close of the last dry season harvest, the stockpiles of beans were less than a tenth of the national consumption.
Among the causes of this decrease is the spread through the western and central provinces of bean flower thrips. It’s an insect that benefited from poor phytosanitary protocols and the shortage of pesticides. Only 16% of farmer demand was imported by the government.
The plague practically extinguished this crop; the main source of plant protein in the island’s diet. Furthermore, it caused huge losses to the thousands of affected growers.
Bad management of crops, lack of resources: food shortage
Over two years considerable investments was made in the targeted productive poles. These are agricultural complexes that the Ministry of Agriculture promoted as its main card to reduce food imports. They embarked on larger plantings as an alternative “to the lack of fertilizers”.
Cuban VP Salvador Valdes Mesa stated the government’s plan when visiting cooperatives in Ciego de Avila in June. “Increasing the sowing areas is not the most appropriate strategy, but it constitutes a way to compensate the low yields.”
A formula combining less machinery, herbicides and fertilizers, with more land but less workers, has a narrow chance of success. When touring the central region, Valdes noted the “increase in weeds” and difficulties in harvesting crops, for example.
The recent relaxation of the rules for hiring temporary workers highlights the crisis in the sector. The daily payment scale demanded by agricultural laborers ranges from 40 or 50 pesos CUP (in the East) to 150 CUP (in Artemisa and Mayabeque). (25 CUP = 1 USD)
Weed production is up
“Almost no one works for less, despite the fact they only work in the morning,” said an Artemisa farmer. He took part in a recent meeting with Valdes and the Communist Party’s second secretary, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura.
Farmers are faced with more expenses, and a redoubled pressure from Acopio to sell it harvests. Likewise, they receive monitoring from the territorial Agriculture Ministry offices. Many growers choose to hide most of their production to sell for better prices to intermediaries. The latter, of course, pass the costs on to consumers.
“You have to weigh how expensive everything is and the risk you run with the merchandise. Before, a sack of malanga could cost up to 200 pesos, and to move it between provinces, a cooperative letter was enough. Tell me if this can be compared to the situation today?”, asks a private truck driver consulted upon arrival in El Hueco with a small load of avocados and squash. He was hired for the trip because he was not just sitting still. He noted the most productive trips – from farms in Ciego de Avila or Sancti Spíritus – were off bounds for weeks due to the pandemic.
The pros and cons of exporting food
The “immediate resumption of all activities in the agricultural chain” stands out in the reform Proposal presented a few days ago by a group of economists, including specialists Pedro Monreal and Julio Carranza. Their analysis recalls how the Cuban agri-food crisis didn’t begin with COVID-19. Moreover, they add that it won’t automatically end after the return to a normal health situation.
“The international context for the economic reform in Cuba could not be worse. However, despite this, carrying it out is an imperative that should not be delayed any further,” agree the economists. They propose radical decisions such as the “selective elimination” of the capped prices. Likewise, the obligation to commit harvests to the government purchaser Acopio to supply social programs. Another fundamental point of the proposal is to “authorize direct exports and imports to all agricultural producers.”
Exports over production for local consumption
Foreign markets are a clear objective of the Ministry of Agriculture. Over the last two years it modified norms and committed producers to allocate part of their harvest for export. This occurred mainly from the provinces bordering Havana (Mayabeque and Artemisa), as well as from Ciego de Ávila.
The government’s Cubadebate website reported in September on a Mayabeque man who exported around a ton of lemons to Spain. He was also preparing for his first avocado shipments to the same destination.
“If we want to improve the harvests here, we must find the hard currency to replenish inputs,” said the official quoted. He avoided the apparent contradiction of shipping what have become luxury products in Cuba to another country. On September 28th, the state press disclosed a new round of visits to the provinces by Machado Ventura, 90, and other leaders. One of the most repeated slogans was that of “favoring exports.”
With agriculture and livestock having seen their main indicators collapse over the last two years, common sense forces us to assume such a claim with caution. Under current conditions, exporting and increasing deliveries to tourist hotels only seems possible at the cost of lowering what is planned for the population’s consumption.
“As long as the sweet potato and malanga are not taken away, we’ll have something,” said the truck driver questioned at the Camagüey market. For his knowledge, the first of these foods now has a regular presence outside Cuban borders. State companies such as Cítricos Caribe S.A. are exporting with the goal of gaining market space.
Perhaps the right question today is not what happened to the harvest projections – announced at the beginning of the pandemic. Instead, the question should be where did the harvests end up?