Cuba and Food: Black Market to Free Market?

Published in The Statesman, February 6, 2015
By Dr. Robyn Metcalfe, Executive Director
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With a subtle nod and a glance, a young man indicated that he might have what I was looking for, potatoes.

During a recent trip to Cuba, I visited the Mercado Agropecuario (Agricultural Market, or farmers’ market) in Havana. At first, I only got a shrug and a cautious look that sought to test the sincerity of my request. No potatoes were to be had, officially, in anyone’s stall. But then I got a few nibbles.

I followed those nods, glances, and half-hearted shrugs outside the market to the crowded sidewalk. Soon I felt the presence of someone who was using his cell phone to negotiate a potato transaction. Within two minutes, another man sprinted across the street and joined my “potato pimp” and me. The new courier coaxed us down the sidewalk away from the market where he surreptitiously reached into his faded green canvas backpack to reveal two plastic bags full of small, smooth, brown-skinned potatoes. I bought a bag of potatoes at black market rates and all three of us went our separate ways. This is how Cubans get food that is unavailable in the public markets

Potatoes, coffee beans and other basic food commodities are nowhere to be found in the official Cuban markets. Since there is a potato shortage in Cuba, the state requires farmers to sell their entire crop to the state potato processors. A few enterprising Cuban farmers or state workers set aside some potatoes for the black market. Even now, amidst the diplomatic euphoria generated by the recent announcements of a loosening of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, getting food on the table requires nods, winks, and a few friends in “the business.”

Both Americans and Cubans have high hopes for a brighter future brought to them by hard currency and technology. Cubans want to believe that trade, essentially hard currency, will save their country from irrelevancy and what now looks like an irreversible economic decline. Few I spoke with made any connection between their system of government and their lack of resources. In fact, some suggested that the U.S. embargo was singularly responsible for their dysfunctional economic system and if only the embargo were lifted, Cuba and its political system would thrive.

Signs of systemic dysfunctions are everywhere. Cuba’s pastures are plowed by old, broken down Soviet tractors and oxen hitched to plows. Farmers are required to sell their goods to the state at state-controlled prices so low that farmers have little with which to improve their farms. And their currency is so worthless that that cannot purchase enough seed potatoes to keep their fields productive.

On the positive side, the recent reforms initiated by Raoul Castro have encouraged individuals to start small farms and other enterprises such as barbershops and restaurants. But without systemic, political change, the new cash and tourists alone will not make a happier and healthier Cuba. For starters, the Cuban food needs an infusion of inspiration led by the appearance of more ingredients. Aside from the famous Cubano sandwich (only available in Cuban immigrant communities in Florida, for the most part), food in Cuba is now mostly a half-dozen ingredients recycled in different forms. Like the ubiquitous Ropa Vieja (Old Clothes, in Spanish), a little beef and pork, copious amount of rice and beans, some shell-fish and sweet potatoes. Free and inexpensive access to the Internet would help resuscitate the Cuban culinary imagination.

But the long, visible hand of the state still insists on maintaining control of individual initiatives. Let’s hope that in the future, a quick search on Google that includes the words  “entrepreneurs” and “Cuban” results with more than just one hit, “Mark Cuban.”