By Jose Luis Paniagua | EFE
Havana’s farmers markets reacted Tuesday with empty shelves, stalls without any supplies, and predictions that the situation “is going to get a lot worse,” after the decision by Cuba’s communist government to crack down on price increases.
The day after international finance markets fell drastically due to the U.S. Congress’ rejection of the bailout plan presented by President George W. Bush, Cuba’s farmers markets, which up to the day before were allowed to set their prices, were having their own “Black Tuesday.”
The government announced Monday that food markets will “provisionally” have to sell some basic products at the prices they were before Hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated Cuba between Aug. 30 and Sept. 9, causing losses worth more than $5 billion.
According to an official communique, “any attempt to break the law…will receive a quick, energetic reply.”
The response was not long in coming and some of Havana’s most important markets on Tuesday had about 80 percent of their stalls empty, while products like peppers, onions, garlic and cucumbers were nowhere to be found.
“Peppers? Forget it, you’re not going to find any, don’t waste your time. There aren’t any,” a produce vendor at the main farmers market in the Havana neighborhood of El Vedado told Efe.
The government chose to tighten regulations when price increases in the markets and for some products soared by as much as 300 percent.
At the same time, it launched a campaign in the official media harshly attacking “hoarders” and “speculators who traffic in stolen goods.”
Behind a stall in which there were only avocados, Agustin said that today the peasant who supplies onions gave him a price - “authorized” by the government, he said - of 10 pesos (some 40 cents) for a half-kilo (1.1 pounds), exactly the same price that was posted in the market where he works.
“What do I do? I don’t sell them,” he said.
In front of the last four squash remaining in his stall, a vendor who declined to give his name said with resignation that “there isn’t anything,” adding that when he has sold the last of what he had left he intended to go home, sit in a chair and watch TV.
“This is bad and it’s going to get much worse,” he said.
At an illegal street market, the carton of 30 eggs that cost around $2 three weeks ago has now shot up to $5. The same goes for potatoes.
An illegal vendor told Efe that the price of a carton of eggs that peasants sell to the pastry industry - when there are any - now costs $3.
“If they squeeze me, I squeeze too,” he said.
An analyst told Efe that the intervention in the food market “changes the rules of the game” and “goes directly against the sector that had some independence.”
In his opinion, the use of police enforcement to control the market won’t be temporary, because there have been “huge losses in agriculture at a time when the situation was already difficult. This was a bad year economically even before the hurricanes,” he said.
For another European observer, “it’s not so obvious that they’re going to be able to satisfy the demand and I think that measures like those announced on Monday betray the authorities’ fear that the situation is getting beyond their control.”
The Cuban government received almost 14,000 requests from individuals and cooperatives interested in farming idle state land on the first three days of an initiative aimed at boosting food production on the island, officials said last Saturday.
The Communist Party daily Granma reported that more than 7,119 applications to grow crops and 6,818 requests to raise livestock on almost 206,000 hectares (510,000 acres) of state land were received by the Agriculture Ministry last week.
The delivery of land to private farmers is a priority of Gen. Raul Castro’s government, which has said that boosting food output is a matter of “national security,” especially after the two recent hurricanes destroyed 5,300 tons of stored food and battered thousands of acres of crops.
More than half of Cuba’s cultivable land currently is lying idle.
Cuba imports approximately 80 percent of the food consumed by its 11.2 million inhabitants and had planned to spend $2 billion this year even before the devastation wrought by Gustav and Ike.
Ninety percent of the produce from the lands being assigned to individuals and cooperatives will be delivered to the government for distribution. EFE