Back to the agricultural market

Prices resist going down at the agricultural product stands, while the social debate heats up awaiting the benefits of successive measures to reorganise that commerce.

The prices of the agricultural markets maintain the tendency toward hikes, though the press observes a slower growth in the first semester of 2014.

The prices in the agricultural markets went up in Cuba during the first semester of the year. This was estimated based on official reports, the emergence of commentaries in the local press and the perception of the common consumer.

The subject remains active in the popular debate due to the tensions on pockets and the measures the government has adopted successively to try to reorganise, without much success, one of the most sensitive areas of the domestic economy.

In recent weeks, television as well as the newspapers and magazines that are read the most have dealt with the matter with a critical focus. However, one of the longest, published in the daily Juventud Rebelde in two parts, defends the thesis that the prices witnessed a slowdown in the first semester of this year. Taking as reference data presented by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), journalist René Tamayo sustains that the prices in that market (between January and June) slowly went up.”

According to his calculations, the price for an average ton of agricultural and meat products grew in that period about four per cent in the agricultural market, compared to a similar period in 2013. Though the hike continues affecting consumers, the analyst observes that “the one digit increase…remained way below the two digit hikes – around 20 per cent -, in one and the other period of 2012 and 2013.”

The report “Sale of Agricultural Products. Selected Indicators,” of the ONEI, said that in the first semester of 2014 the sales in values of the different forms of markets and agricultural outlets amounted to a total of 1.533 billion pesos, 16.1 per cent more than the same period of the previous year. But measured in physical units (tons), the sale in the most frequented commercial outlets increased less.

In the state-run agricultural markets (MAE), which support half of all that commerce, the sale of agricultural products was close to 181,000 tons, 5.4 per cent more than in the first semester of 2013, while in values it increased 16.6 per cent, to almost 631 million pesos.

The strongest point for growth measured in values clearly indicates a rise in prices for vegetables, tubers, grains and fruit.

Something different happened with the meat products. In the MAE, the amount of sold tons increased 60 per cent, but in values the sale only advanced 43 per cent. In any case, the pork transactions and for other meat products are much smaller than the agricultural supply (3,455 tons for 108 million pesos, from January to June).

The daily Juventud Rebelde’s observation of a general slowing down of prices was considered by it as “a good sign.” Though the journalist admits that “not many persons shared my enthusiasm,” he affirmed that the updating measures or transformation of the Cuban economic model have started to mature and bear fruit in the agricultural sector. He recognises, on the other hand, the inefficiency of the ONEI’s data to make such a categorical affirmation.

The truth of the matter is that the Cuban population continues showing dissatisfaction in front of the market stands. In commentaries broadcast by the programme “Cuba dice” (Cuba Says), of the National Television Prime Time Newscast, the interviewees expressed their inconvenience with the resistance of the prices to go down and with the lack of correspondence between the inflation tendencies of those products and the wage levels in the country. With the average wage in Cuba – 471 pesos at the close of 2013, according to ONEI -, a consumer has the tight purchasing power to face a market where a pound of pork averages – without differentiating quality or parts of the hog – between 16 and 20 pesos.

The controversy around the commercial stage responsible for the high prices has been keeping the press and consumers busy for months. The voices consider the agricultural producers as well as the retail traders in their diverse forms:  agricultural markets (MAE), supply and demand markets (MAOD), outlets in barrios, street vendors.

In more than one case sights are set on the first wholesale market managed by a cooperative in the country, El Trigal, whose usefulness as an intermediate stage is questioned by the population, journalists or the producers themselves. The farmers partly blame the intermediaries who buy in El Trigal the products that they later distribute through the retail markets for the price hikes.

However, some of the farmers interviewed at El Trigal by the TV programme could not explain the reason for the high prices, while others pointed to the increase this year in the cost of agricultural inputs employed in the crops. In a feature article published in the magazine with the largest circulation in Cuba, Bohemia, several farmers pointed to those expenditures among the factors having an impact on the production cost of the harvests and, therefore, in the prices put on their offer.

The state supplying enterprises also defend themselves. According to Bohemia, the general director of one of those business groups, Tomás Rafael Rodríguez, argued that “the state measure of selling them without subsidies (the resources for production) began in May of this year, but before that, why did the farmers put the same high prices on their productions? It’s a senseless justification.”

But the truth is that the increase in costs in any economic activity will always push the prices to go up.

The government has reorganised many times the commerce of agricultural products. Among the most recent steps are the creation of the wholesale market of El Trigal and the experimental liberation of the majority of the prices producers put in three provinces, Havana, Mayabeque and Artemisa. Meanwhile, the capital is the major consumer of food products, and Artemisa and Mayabeque traditionally classify among the country’s agricultural powers.  

But the benefits are taking long. Consumers, meanwhile, continue waiting for the measures to be reflected in their purchasing power. (2014)

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