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The Annual Potato Ritual

The Annual Potato Ritual
ORLANDO PALMA, Havana | Marzo 09, 2015

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.

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

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. 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

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.

Source: The Annual Potato Ritual –

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