HAVANA, Aug. 12th Cuba’s hard-currency stores are well-stocked with imported goods, as much as they can get, something obvious to any regular reader of the official press.
In an article entitled “Broken Links in the Chain,” the state-run newspaper Granma asks why Cuban farm products are not being sold in these establishments. It is ironic because, in the opinion of those interviewed, the government has done all it can and it’s now up to the producers themselves.
“While the workers under its command strive to maintain a steady supply of fresh vegetables, two blocks away a currency store operated by the state-owned Cimex corporation is selling imported spinach, beans and carrots,” the newspaper quotes Jesús Gonzalez as saying.
Gonzalez runs an organic farm in Pinar del Rio called Las Flores and insists he is willing to supply stores like this but none have shown any interest.
Roberto Trujillo, head of marketing at the Provincial Delegation of Agriculture, blames the farmers, claiming they lack a marketing mentality. “There is a lot of ignorance, even among the most experienced producers,” he says.
He notes that — with the exception of honey, tobacco and charcoal — little is being marketed to consumers overseas, to the tourism industry or to Cuba’s hard-currency stores. These potential income sources, he claims, could provide domestic producers with enough earnings to acquire needed raw materials and technology.
Granma interviewed Onay Martinez, an engineer who runs Tierra Brava, a farm in the town of Los Palacios, which he says “supplies more than 200 tons of fruit,” though he does not specify whether it is sold in Cuba or abroad.
Martinez explains that it is not just about know-how. Sometimes things as simple but as important as packaging for retail sale are not available or do not meet international standards.
While Martinez believes it would be easier to sell to Cuban retail chains or the tourism sector than to export, he blames the business sector for being more focused on itself than on forming business partnerships. “I think this is one of the problems we currently have, that we are not looking inward,” he says.
He does not blame the government, however, which he believes has worked hard at eliminating obstacles to economic development. “All the necessary policies have been put in place. Now the problem is people’s mindset, which has to change to take the next step”, he says.
His farm produces fruits and condiments which, as the article notes, “are sold at local outlets and neighborhood stores in Palacios and Pinar del Rio,” as well as on the hard-currency market.
For Juan Carlos, a 42-old fruit grower in Alquizar, a town in Artemisa province, the hassles of getting his crops into stores start as soon as harvesting begins. “Getting boxes that will protect the fruit and vegetables during transport is a headache,” he says.
“We already have wooden crates but the dividers and trays to keep the fruit from being crushed by its own weight aren’t available”, he points out. “Another issue is the packaging. You can’t sell it in those stores without some kind of product presentation. And no one is willing to sell it in bulk, by the pound, right now.”
“I cannot compete with another producer from Spain, who offers his strawberries in flashy packaging where everything is explained, from calorie counts to recipes. The best I can do is put my fruit in a bag or package with a tiny label, but that’s it. Which product are you going to buy? The imported one because it catches the eye.”
Juan Carlos has dabbled in frozen mango, mamey and guava pulp, which he sells in bags. “I have customers who buy it here because they know it’s a good quality product and that we make sure our conditions are sanitary. But it doesn’t make sense to try selling it somewhere else when basic refrigeration isn’t available.”
“My mango is better than some cherries in syrup from Spain but, without freezers, labels, packaging and fuel, I can’t sell it in hard-currency or peso stores. It’s not about not having a merchant’s mindset. It’s about not having the resources, about the hurdles to buying what we need.” he says.
The Granma article insists that producers’ ultimate goal cannot simply be to sell to hard-currency stores. Otherwise, their products, it argues, “would be beyond the reach of most of the public.”
Two-thirds of the article is dedicated to a speech Raul Castro gave back in 2007 in which he discussed overcoming the import mindset. “In order to have more, we must start by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency, so that we can reduce imports, starting with food produced here,” said the general on July 26 of that year.
According to Granma, this marked a turning point, a rare success story. Artisan and Pinar del Rio resident Claudio Roba announced he could produce all the bats needed for the National Baseball Series.
Roba began making the bats for fifty pesos apiece compared to the hundred dollars it would have cost to import them. That year he produced almost a thousand. However, orders for his bats began to decline until they dried up altogether. “Sadly, this money, which the country needs for so many other things, is spent on things we can make in Cuba,” he said.
Near the end of the article, Granma lists the measures the government has adopted since 2011 which, in its judgment, producers should follow to improve their output.
“The business system has undergone organizational, economic, managerial, financial, fiscal and worker income transformations aimed at facilitating the productive chain with the socialist state company,” it states before to mentioning the seven main principles.
However, fourteen years after Raul Castro’s speech and eleven years after the first of these measures took effect, the situation has only gotten worse. Foreign trade data released by the National Office of Statistics and Information for 2021 speaks for itself: Cuba imported four times more than it exported.