The Annual Potato Ritual

La cola para comprar papas en La Habana. (Luz Escobar/14ymedio)
The line to buy potatoes in Havana. (Luz Escobar/14ymedio)

Last weekend, the arrival of the potato in several farmers markets in Havana provoked fights that recalled the despair of the most difficult years of the  Special Period. Hours after the squabbles ended, it was possible to buy potatoes in the same places, but from the hands of those clever enough to speculate in the product.

The Ministry of Agriculture authorities insist that the current crop of the tuber is notably larger than last year’s, however the lines and fights to buy them also seem to have multiplied.

In the current “potato campaign” 60,000 tons of the product are expected, but precedents raise fears that this estimate will not be reached. The 2014 harvest fell significantly short of the production plan, delivering 53,300 tons instead of the 65,700 tons projected. The difference was felt on the dinner tables of Cuban families and provoked desperation in neighborhoods and villages, something that is easy to observe whenever you see a truck with the precious foodstuff.

In the case of the city of Havana, given its population density, the situation becomes more complex. The product is sold in at least 51 authorized markets in the neighborhoods of Playa, Plaza, Centro Habana, La Habana Vieja, Diez de Octubre, La Habana del Este, San Miguel, Boyeros, Arroyo Naranjo and Cerro. These places are battlegrounds where people wait for hours, shouting and shoving.

The panorama of long lines and fights is now repeated in the illegal market, where the prices for potatoes have also shot up. If at the official stalls a pound costs one Cuban peso (about 4¢ US), buying them under the table is going to cost you one convertible peso, twenty-five times the official price. And that despite the fact that sales are restricted to twenty pounds a person, a limitation the resellers seem to overcome with ease.

If at the official stalls a pound costs one Cuban peso (about 4¢ US), buying them under the table is going to cost you one convertible peso, twenty-five times the official price

Nancy Wilson Perich, Commercial Deputy Director of the Provincial Company of Agricultural Markets, looks to the future with optimism, however. According to what this functionary told the official media, the number of stalls selling potatoes will increase to 210 during March, and they are expected to sell 26,500 tons, of which 3,500 have already been sold.

Most of the potatoes arriving in the capital this season come from the provinces of Mayabeque, Artemisa, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Avila. Perich Wilson says that of the 60,000 tons expected from February to April, about 30,000 will go to into cold storage in Havana, Güira, Alquízar and Guines for later sale.

“Operation potato” not only involves the Provincial Company of Agricultural Markets, it also involves the Ministry of Domestic Trade, the Logistics Group of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Revolutionary Police themselves, who are in charge of controlling lines and maintaining discipline among buyers. A long involved chain, which can neither produce nor distribute this staple efficiently.

Farmers point to the scarce supply of seed as responsible for the decrease in the presence of the potatoes in Cuba. Most seeds are imported from the Netherlands and Canada at a cost of over 10 million dollars. The national variety, known as Romano, can’t produce the yields of the foreign seeds, but it has the advantage of coming earlier in the year compared to the foreign supplies, which only begin to arrive in the country starting in the month of November.

Farmers complain of poor seed distribution, doled out to them in dribs and drabs, late and often in bad shape

Farmers complain of poor seed distribution, doled out to them in dribs and drabs, late and often in bad shape. To this is added the climate requirements for good growth of the tubers, which need a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit for full development. The good news is that, at least in recent weeks, the cold fronts that have hit the western region have been favorable for potato cultivation.

The same has not been true for the supply of fertilizers, insecticides and the quality of the irrigation systems of the farmers engaged in this work. Problems are felt in towns such as Alquízar, Güira and Artemis, with a long tradition of potato farming, where farmers reported delays and gaps in the delivery of the “technology package.” The bad technical situation or absence of sprayers for pests is one of the obstacles most mentioned by the producers.

The potato problem, however, transcends potatoes. It is not just about the difficulties facing production. In 2000 there was a very positive peak of 348,500 tons, almost six times today’s production. The situation is closely related to the increase in prices and the lack of substitute products.

This is also the case with rice and meats, which in recent months have experienced cycles of shortages and rising imports. Given the high price of beans, the potato becomes a product that can salvage a meal. The desperation to buy potatoes does not represent a special fondness on the part of Cubans for its flavor, but an urgent need to alleviate the lack of food that has increased in recent months because of shortages.


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