The signs that can be detected in the newly begun year of 2009 don’t appear very promising. After 2008, in which the expectations surrounding the assignment of land in usufruct to farmers capable of making it produce turned to mud, and after an “experimental” closing of all the farmers markets in the municipality of Cerro which took place over several days last December, the rumors around the final elimination of the “non-State” markets has become a grim certainty.
This year began with the closure of many of the markets for food and vegetables which, gradually, had begun to recover from the ravages of this season’s hurricanes and had already begun to display a greater variety in their offerings and a modest improvement in the quality of their products. Bit by bit the prices, although very high with respect to the purchasing power of the average Cuban wage, had declined slightly in relation to those of us whom they frightened (and fleeced) as a result of the passage of the infamous hurricanes. But, lest we forget we are in Cuba, a new official regulation has closed every agricultural market whose products don’t come from State cooperatives or whose products have not been sold directly to the State.
The direct and immediate result couldn’t be other than the already demonstrated incapacity of the State to satisfy the demands of the population. In a circuit I just finished making of the agricultural markets near my house, I have been able to evaluate—although only at a micro-local level—the new complications this presents to consumers: 1) travel to more distant places looking for the food their family consumes; 2) more time lost in lines because there are more people at the scarce state outlets; 3) reduction in supply as a consequence of disadvantageous prices the State-buyer offers to the farmer-producer and the insufficient State transport for the shipment of these products to the markets. And all this without prices registering a significant decline.
On the other hand, the intricate network conceived here for trade in agricultural products, the option that keeps a large variety and quality, is that of the free public markets, for example those located in the Mercado Único or at Egido and Corrales, but those charge prices that are almost always exorbitant and completely beyond the pockets of the workers.
One of the surviving kiosks of the drastic closures is that located in Estrella Street, between Infanta and Xifré, in Central Havana. I arrived there today, Monday, January 12, after walking through the whole surrounding area and finding that both the site at Sitios and Morales, as well as the one at Placencia and Sitios, among others, had been closed since the beginning of the year. The lone seller who, in the one at Estrella remained silent in front of his scarce products (garlic, red beans, tomatoes and green pineapples), shrugged his shoulders to my questions, replying laconically to a few:
– Why have they closed the produce markets?
– Are they closed for good?
– (Shrug, followed by), “I think so.”
– Who directed that?
– It seems it comes from above, it’s an order.
– Why haven’t you closed?
– We were given until Wednesday to sell what we have.
That is to say, on Wednesday, January 14, this site also will close. I’ve known friends and family in the identical situation occuring in other municipalities of the city, namely Plaza, Playa, Marianao and Cerro, which indicates that the “measure” is here to stay.
Maybe someone with common sense, but with an absolute ignorance of the Cuban reality, could suppose this is positive, that such a measure will remove the middlemen and some undesirable smuggling of goods of dubious provenance that escape the legal controls and elude paying taxes, which in the end would work in favor of lower prices for agricultural products and an improvement in services… But our experience reminds us that no State initiative has ever borne fruit. What actually happens is that now the State will be the only Middleman between the producer and the consumer (read “consumed”) for more and better “control”; this will create a new and expanded body of inspectors—a pool of the corrupt—and a whole battalion of other inspectors to monitor (extort from) the first. So, far from foreseeing solutions, we are looking at another turn of the screw, as always, to the right.
Photo courtesy of Dimas Castellanos. The appearance of land in a State “production” cooperative, overrun with thriving marabu weed.