Tag Archives: Agriculture

Cuban sugar harvest falters; foreign investment sought

  By Marc Frank

Original here:  Cuban Sugar Harvest, 2014   

HAVANA, March 4 (Reuters) – For the third consecutive year Cuba’s reorganized sugar industry is failing to perform up to expectations, increasing pressure on the government to open up the once proud sector to foreign investment.

Already one mill, the first since the industry was nationalized soon after the 1959 revolution, is under foreign management, with at least seven others on the auction block.

AZCUBA, the state-run holding company that replaced the Sugar Ministry three years ago, announced plans to produce 1.8 million tonnes of raw sugar this season, 18 percent more than last season’s 1.6 million tonnes. But the harvest is 20 percent behind schedule, sugar reporter Juan Varela Perez wrote recently in Granma, the Communist Party daily.

“Continuous and heavy rainfall in almost all provinces of the country has affected the harvest since January,” state-run Radio Rebelde said late last week, reporting on a meeting of AZCUBA executives at the end of February. “To this has been added the habitual problems of inputs arriving late, disorganization and the poor quality and slowness of repairs,” the report said.

Sugar was once Cuba’s leading export, both before the revolution and afterward, when the former Soviet Union bought Cuban sugar at guaranteed prices. Today it is Cuba’s seventh largest earner of foreign currency, behind services, remittances, tourism, nickel, pharmaceuticals, and cigars.

“These days it is a true odyssey to go through a harvest. The mills need more profound repairs, but that costs millions upon millions of dollars,” Manuel Osorio, a mill worker in eastern Granma province, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “So they do some superficial repairs and start grinding and immediately the problems begin and this year to top it off it is hot and raining almost every day. The cane needs cool and dry weather to mature. If not, it is like milling weeds.”

The sugar harvest begins in December with the “winter” season and runs into May, with January through March the key months as dry and cool weather increases yields, but not this year.

“I can’t remember a wetter winter and it is almost impossible to harvest,” sugarcane cutter Arnaldo Hernandez said in a telephone interview from eastern Holguin province.

Cuban sugar plantations lack adequate drainage, making harvesting by machine difficult when it rains, and humid weather retards the production of sugar in cane.

“Going into the plantations is a heroic task, and when the cane reaches the mills it yields little sugar,” Hernandez said. “Look, even the Guaraperas (sugarcane juice) they sell in the city is like water. I know because I tried some myself yesterday.”

Rainfall was twice the average for the month in key eastern and central provinces through most of February, according to official media.

“So far this year 115.2 millimeters (4.5 inches) of rain has fallen in (the eastern province of) Las Tunas, twice the historic average,” the National Information Agency reported in late February. The agency said the harvest in Las Tunas was 35,000 tonnes of raw sugar behind schedule to date toward a plan of 194,000 tonnes through May.

A similar situation was reported in central Villa Clara, where the goal is 218,000 tonnes, and in central Camaguey, which reported production to date was 13 percent, or 11,000 tonnes, below plan.

INVESTMENT OPENING

Cuba produced just 1.2 million tonnes of raw sugar three seasons ago when AZCUBA was formed, compared with 8 million tonnes in the early 1990s, before the demise of the Soviet Union led to the industry’s near collapse. Industry plans call for an annual average increase in output of 15 percent through 2016, though over the last three harvests the increase has been 12 percent, according to AZCUBA. The poor performance so far this year may accelerate AZCUBA’s plans to open the sector to private investment.

President Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008, is trying to revive the country’s economy through reforms passed by the Communist Party in 2011. The plans include more foreign investment.

This year, the Cuban Chamber of Commerce listed seven more sugar mills as candidates for foreign investment, all of which were built after the revolution and are therefore not subject to claims by previous owners. The remaining 48 mills in the country were all built more than 60 years ago.

This month the Cuban National Assembly is expected to pass a new foreign investment law that makes the island, and agriculture, more investor friendly.

Odebrecht SA, a Brazilian corporation, began administering a mill in central Cienfuegos province this year, the first foreign company allowed into the industry since 1959. Odebrecht subsidiary, Compañía de Obras en Infraestructura, plans to upgrade the mill as well as the supporting farm and transport sectors, and has expressed an interest in other mills, as have a number of other foreign companies. Its 13-year contract calls for an investment of around $140 million to increase output to more than 120,000 tonnes of raw sugar from 40,000 tonnes.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually, with what remains sold to other countries.

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Mechanized Zafra

cimg3076Cane Transport

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An Aerial View of what was Left of the Australia Sugar Mill, 2011

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Cuba ensaya nuevas fórmulas para flexibilizar la comercialización agrícola

La Habana, 6 nov (EFE)

El Gobierno cubano anunció hoy nuevas medidas para flexibilizar la comercialización de productos agropecuarios en tres provincias del país, en un experimento que busca mejorar los complejos mecanismos de distribución y venta que entorpecen el sector desde hace años.

La Gaceta Oficial de Cuba divulgó este miércoles el nuevo reglamento de comercialización en las provincias occidentales de La Habana, Mayabeque y Artemisa, regiones de peso agropecuario, al que estarán sujetos los productores estatales, los privados y los diversos tipos de cooperativas que existen en la isla.

La nueva fórmula simplificará los vínculos entre productores y consumidores, y liberará la comercialización de modo que los agricultores puedan acceder a los mercados con sus propios medios y comerciar a su antojo tras cumplir sus compromisos contractuales con el Estado, explicó hoy el diario oficial Granma.

Las autoridades organizarán así una red de mercados minoristas gestionados por entidades estatales, por cooperativas o trabajadores por cuenta propia, con un espectro de precios regulados para productos como arroz, fríjoles y papas, y el resto sujeto a oferta y demanda.

Además estarán la opción de los “puntos de venta” a precios de oferta y demanda, y la de los comerciantes ambulantes o “carretilleros” autónomos.

El Gobierno planea asimismo crear una red de mercados mayoristas nocturnos administrados por empresas estatales que pueden arrendar el espacio a cooperativas, y cuya primera instalación debe comenzar a funcionar antes de 2014 en La Habana.

“Tomando en cuenta la diversidad que caracteriza el entramado comercial de productos agropecuarios en nuestro país, con esta decisión se pretende estudiar a escala territorial otros modos de hacer (…) que permitan modificar, ampliar, perfeccionar y luego extender la experiencia al resto de las provincias”, precisó Granma.

El rotativo indicó que se busca “transformar la comercialización de forma tal que se eliminen los mecanismos que actualmente la entorpecen y se logre hacerla más dinámica, eficiente y flexible”.

En ese sentido, procura “ordenar y perfeccionar” la red comercial “haciéndola más asequible para productores y consumidores, y también más competitiva entre todas sus formas”, añadió el diario.

De acuerdo con las autoridades, la medida debe favorecer la producción, la oferta en los mercados y la disminución de los precios.

El “reordenamiento” del sector agrícola forma parte del plan de reformas económicas impulsadas por el presidente cubano, Raúl Castro, para “actualizar” el modelo económico socialista de la isla.

En Cuba, el incremento de la producción de alimentos es considerado un asunto de “seguridad nacional” ya que el país importa anualmente el 80 por ciento de los alimentos que consume, con gastos de unos 1.800 millones de dólares, lo que representa un 30 por ciento de sus ingresos en divisas.

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Cuba’s sugar mills get new lease of life

BBC, 22 May 2013 Last updated at 00:15 ET

The chimneys are back at work in the Cuban sugar town of Mejico   It is a sight the people of Mejico thought they would never see again – sugar cane pouring onto a conveyer belt, beneath chimneys pouring smoke into a bright blue sky.  Silent for seven years, the town’s sugar mill has been given a new lease of life.

Sugar was Cuba’s biggest export until the 1990s, providing half a million jobs. But when the Soviet market disappeared and the world sugar price sank, almost two-thirds of the island’s mills had to close.  At those that remained, production plummeted. Weeds overran the cane fields, and abandoned sugar plants – once the heart of many communities – fell into ruin.

 ‘Tough blow’

But Mejico is one of more than a dozen mills gradually being salvaged as Cuba looks to capitalise on a recent rise in sugar prices and improved yields in its cane-fields.

The mill in Mejico dates back to 1832, when the canefields were worked by slaves housed in nearby barracks  “When they said the mill would stop working, it was a tough blow,” says Ariel Diaz, who used to work as an engineer at the old mill before it shut down in 2006.  “It really traumatised us,” he says of its closure, which happened almost overnight.

There had been a mill in Mejico since 1832. The original stone slave barracks are still standing – converted into workers’ housing. “We were nothing without the mill. It was our life,” Mr Diaz says, now happy to be back in the noisy, steamy sheds shouting orders to his team as huge metal cogs turn down below..

Repairs, Australia Sugar Mill, 1994,  (now converted to a museum). Photo by Arch Ritter

 Centuries-old tradition

The re-opening has created some 400 new jobs in the mill itself. Sixteen farmers’ co-operatives are supplying it with cane. The country needs to produce sugar, and we can help”

Across Cuba, as mills closed, many people were redeployed to collective farms; others were paid to study and re-qualify.  “Clearly people were affected, especially psychologically,” a spokesman for state sugar company Azcuba, Liobel Perez, accepts.  “The mills represent years, centuries, of tradition so it was very hard. But steps were taken to help.”

Just a short drive from Mejico, the chimneys of the Sergio Gonzalez mill are still cold some 15 years after the last sugar rolled off the conveyer belts.  Weeds poke out of holes in the concrete. The old sheds have been partially dismantled and are rusting.A sorry-looking stage has a faded pro-revolution slogan painted across it: “Revolucion, Si!”

“All the families here lived off the mill, and life was much easier,” recalls Argelio Espinosa, a mill mechanic for many years. He now sells slush-ice drinks from a street cart, one of the small, private businesses that communist Cuba now allows.  But sales in such a poor town are slow and Mr Espinosa echoes many who say the mill closure brought other difficulties.

“When the mill was open there was always transport for the workers and everyone used it. Now there’s just two buses a day,” he points out. “It’s the same with the water. When the mill was grinding, it needed water and we were never short. Now we have problems,” he adds.

The locals talk of how new businesses, like a spaghetti factory, were brought to other former sugar towns.   In Sergio Gonzalez, the luckiest now hitch a ride 80km north for jobs in the tourist resort of Varadero.

Challenges ahead

By contrast, there is a fresh buzz of activity in Mejico. In the nearby fields, workers have been rushing to cut the cane before the weather turns. A shiny new Brazilian harvester charges forward, swallowing up the cane as it goes.  Cuba has invested in some new equipment to kick-start its revamped sugar business. It is one of four machines Cuba invested in for the mill re-opening, far more efficient than the aging, Soviet alternative.

There have been teething troubles with the re-opening. New machine parts arrived late, the workforce is young and inexperienced, and production is below target. Senior staff have slept little, under pressure to perform.

But the whole community is willing this to succeed. Some pensioners are helping out at the mill for free, passing their expertise to a new, young generation. And many sugar workers who took up farming when the mill closed have hung up their spades and returned.

“They like the mill. It’s a tradition here, more than anything. And it’s more secure work, right next to their homes,” explains mill director Jesus Perez Collazo. “There are a lot of challenges. The harvest is not as good as we wanted but the country needs to produce sugar, and we can help,” he says.

China buys 400,000 tonnes of sugar from Cuba a year; now production is increasing, Azcuba says international brokers are also knocking at the door.

 New life

With the revamped mills back online, the eventual target is three million tonnes per year, though persistent inefficiencies mean this year’s harvest will fall well below that.

Some old-time sugar workers are passing on their knowledge to a new generation of workers. “Sugar is once more becoming one of our principal export goods and that will be reinforced in the years to come,” argues spokesman Liobel Perez.. Despite the difficulties, those are welcome words in Mejico.

As the day cools, men gather in the main square watching the mill smoke rise and discussing the harvest.  For some, like 68-year old Joel, the re-opening has meant coming out of retirement.  “I need the money,” he says bluntly. At $35 a month, his mill salary is more than three times his pension. Others take a broader view. “There was no life, no movement here without the mill,” one man comments. “This place was like a cemetery.”

Now Mejico is shuddering back to life.

Australia Sugar Mill, 1994

Steam Locomotives, vintage  +/- 1910, at the Australia Sugar Mill, 1994, Photo by Arch Ritter

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How Cubans’ Health Improved When Their Economy Collapsed: Sometimes financial crises can force lifestyle changes for the better.

I well remember in the 1990s in Havana. Food was in short supply; meat was almost unavailable; gasoline was out of the picture; walking. cycling and the “camello” were the chief sources of transportation. The result? My Cuban friends got thin and fit.This indeed was a general phenomenon in Cuba.

But then in the last decade or so, my friends have put on weight, some in a major way. This also seems to be a general phenomenon, and Cuba has climbed back into the ranks of the countries scoring highest in the obesity rankings, with at No. 24, with 20.1% of the male population having a body-mass index of 30 or more. (The Economist, Pocket World in Figures, 2013, p.87.)

A recent study published in the BMJ Group has found that the weight losses, greater physical activity, and increased vegetable and legume consumption in this period had a variety of beneficial impacts on health, notably coronary heart disease and diabetes mortality. Then the increased food consumption (and reduced reliance on the bicycle!) during the 2000-20210 period has coincided with a worsening of some of the basic health measures.

Unfortunately the prospects for obesity and related problems may be serious for Cuba, due in part to greater food availability, and notably meat, and reduced physical activity. There also may be  a psychological factor – the urge to eat a lot when food is available, having gone through earlier periods of hunger. Cuba may now be starting to face some of the same problems as the countries where obesity has become a major challenge.

The write-up of the original medical journal article in the Atlantic is presented below. The  original article from the BMJ Group is located here:  Population-wide weight loss and regain in relation to diabetes burden and cardiovascular mortality in Cuba 1980-2010: repeated cross sectional surveys and ecological comparison of secular trends

Authors: Manuel Franco, associate professor, adjunct associate professor, visiting researcher; Usama Bilal, research assistant, visiting researcher; Pedro Orduñez, regional adviser; Mikhail Benet, professor; Alain Morejón, assistant professor; Benjamín Caballero, professor; Joan F Kennelly, research assistant professor; Richard S Cooper, professor and chair

Richard Schiffman, The Atlantic,, Apr 18 2013

When Cuba’s benefactor, the Soviet Union, closed up shop in the early 1990s, it sent the Caribbean nation into an economic tailspin from which it would not recover for over half a decade.

The biggest impact came from the loss of cheap petroleum from Russia. Gasoline quickly became unobtainable by ordinary citizens in Cuba, and mechanized agriculture and food distribution systems all but collapsed. The island’s woes were compounded by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which intensified the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, preventing pharmaceuticals, manufactured goods, and food imports from entering the country. During this so-called “special period” (from 1991 to 1995), Cuba teetered on the brink of famine. Cubans survived drinking sugared water, and eating anything they could get their hands on, including domestic pets and the animals in the Havana Zoo

The economic meltdown should logically have been a public health disaster. But a new study conducted jointly by university researchers in Spain, Cuba, and the U.S. and published in the latest issue of BMJ says that the health of Cubans actually improved dramatically during the years of austerity. These surprising findings are based on nationwide statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, together with surveys conducted with about 6,000 participants in the city of Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, between 1991 and 2011. The data showed that, during the period of the economic crisis, deaths from cardiovascular disease and adult-onset type 2 diabetes fell by a third and a half, respectively. Strokes declined more modestly, and overall mortality rates went down.

This “abrupt downward trend” in illness does not appear to be because of Cuba’s barefoot doctors and vaunted public health system, which is rated amongst the best in Latin America. The researchers say that it has more to do with simple weight loss. Cubans, who were walking and bicycling more after their public transportation system collapsed, and eating less (energy intake plunged from about 3,000 calories per day to anywhere between 1,400 and 2,400, and protein consumption dropped by 40 percent). They lost an average of 12 pounds.

Bicycle Parking Lot, Havana

Hydroponic Urban Agriculture, Havana

It wasn’t only the amount of food that Cubans ate that changed, but also what they ate. They became virtual vegans overnight, as meat and dairy products all but vanished from the marketplace. People were forced to depend on what they could grow, catch, and pick for themselves– including lots of high-fiber fresh produce, and fruits, added to the increasingly hard-to-come-by staples of beans, corn, and rice. Moreover, with petroleum and petroleum-based agro-chemicals unavailable, Cuba “went green,” becoming the first nation to successfully experiment on a large scale with low-input sustainable agriculture techniques. Farmers returned to the machetes and oxen-drawn plows of their ancestors, and hundreds of urban community gardens (the latest rage in America’s cities) flourished.

“If we hadn’t gone organic, we’d have starved!” said Miguel Salcines Lopez in the journal Southern Spaces. Salcines is an agricultural scientist who founded “Vívero Alamar,” one of Cuba’s best known organopónicos, or urban farms, in vacant lots in Havana.

During the special period, expensive habits like smoking and most likely also alcohol consumption were reduced, albeit briefly. This enforced fitness regime lasted only until the Cuban economy began to recover in the second half of the 1990s. At that point, physical activity levels began to fall off, and calorie intake surged. Eventually people in Cuba were eating even more than they had before the crash. The researchers report that “by 2011, the Cuban population has regained enough weight to almost triple the obesity rates of 1995.”

Not surprisingly, the diseases of affluence made a comeback as well. Diabetes increased dramatically, and declines in cardiovascular disease slowed to their sluggish pre-1991 levels. (Heart disease did decline slightly in the 1980s due to improved detection and treatments.) By 2002, “mortality rates returned to the pre-crisis pattern,” according to the authors of the study. Cancer deaths, which fell in the years after the crash, also started inching up after the recovery, rising 5.4 percent from 1996 to 2010.

While the study’s author’s are cautious about attributing all of these changes in disease rates exclusively to changes in weight, Professor Walter Willett, of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston wrote in an editorial that the study does provide “powerful evidence [that] a reduction in overweight and obesity would have major population-wide benefits.”

The findings have special relevance to the U.S., which is currently in the midst of a type 2 diabetes epidemic. Disease rates more than doubled from 1963 to 2005, and continue to rise precipitously. Diabetes and its attendant complications have been called one of “the main drivers” of rising health care costs in the U.S. by a report which was published last month by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “Recent estimates project that as many as one in three American adults will have diabetes in 2050,” according to Robert Ratner, the chief scientific and medical officer of the ADA.

Cardiovascular disease is statistically an even bigger scourge. This illness, which was relatively rare at the turn of the twentieth century, has become the leading cause of mortality for Americans, responsible for over a third of all deaths. Heart disease is associated with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, obesity, and artery-clogging diets.

The Cuban experience suggests that to seriously make a dent in these problems, we’ll have to change the lifestyle that helps to cause them. The study’s authors recommend “educational efforts, redesign of built environments to promote physical activity, changes in food systems, restrictions on aggressive promotion of unhealthy drinks and foods to children, and economic strategies such as taxation.”

But they also acknowledge that the changes that they are calling for are tough to engineer at the government level: “So far, no country or regional population has successfully reduced the distribution of body mass index or reduced the prevalence of obesity through public health campaigns or targeted treatment programs.”

So where does that leave us? If the United States want to stem the rise of diabetes and heart disease, either we get serious about finding ways for to become more physically active and to eat fewer empty calories — or we wait for economic collapse to do that work for us.

Fig 2 Distributions of body mass index as recorded by national surveys conducted in Cienfuegos in 1991, 1995, 2001, and 2010

Fig 4 Obesity prevalence and coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke mortality in Cuba (1980-2010). Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery; CHD=coronary heart disease. CHD mortality decreased by 0.50% per year from 1980 to 1996, 6.48% per year from 1996 to 2002, and 1.42% per year from 2002 to 2010. Cancer mortality decreased by 0.12% per year from 1980 to 1996, but increased by 0.47% per year from 1996 to 2010. Stroke mortality fell by 0.39% per year from 1980 to 2000, 5.03% per year from 2000 to 2004, and 0.01% per year from 2004 to 2010

Fig 1 Physical activity, dietary energy intake, and smoking in Cuba, 1980-2010. Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery. Physical activity data recorded in 1987, 1988, and 1994 obtained from Havana surveys; data recorded in 1995, 2001, and 2010 come from national surveys. *1 kcal=0.00418 MJ

Fig 3 Prevalence of obesity and diabetes, incidence, and mortality in Cuba, 1980-2010. Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery. Diabetes prevalence increased by 2.93% per year from 1980 to 1997, and 6.27% per year from 1997 to 2010. Diabetes mortality increased by 5.85% per year from 1980 to 1989, but fell by 0.68% per year from 1989 to 1996 and 13.95% per year from 1996 to 2002, before increasing by 3.31% per year from 2002 to 2010

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“Private sector bites into Cuban state food sales”

* First wholesale market opens in Havana; State share of food sales declines

By Marc Frank, Reuters,  Wed Mar 27, 2013

HAVANA, March 27 (Reuters) – Cubans are building private food distribution networks from the farm through to retail outlets as communist authorities gradually dismantle the state’s monopoly on the purchase and sale of agricultural products.

The country’s first wholesale produce market is up and running on the outskirts of Havana and across the island farmers report they are selling more of their goods directly to customers, ranging from hotels to individual vendors.

Those involved say the change is speeding the flow of food to market, helping end longstanding inefficiencies that often left crops to rot in fields and putting more money in the pockets of producers.

“We purchased two old trucks this year, in part to deliver produce to our state clients in Camaguey,” said the president of a cooperative near the city in central Cuba.

“A few years ago we had to sell everything to the state, which then sold it to our clients a few days later. Now it arrives fresh and we keep the 21 percent profit that went to the state wholesaler,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.

Private trucks, some dating back to the 1950s and beyond, clatter into cities and towns delivering goods to kiosks and stalls run by private farm cooperatives or their surrogates.

In eastern Santiago de Cuba, the trucks roll into retail markets where private food vendors, who roam the streets with horse-drawn wagons, push and tricycle carts, gather to buy.

With the country importing around 60 percent of its food and private farmers outperforming state farms on a fraction of the land, authorities are gradually deregulating the sector and leasing fallow land to would-be farmers.

At the same time private truckers and vendors are being licensed as part of an opening to small businesses, with 400,000 people, including employees, now working in what’s called the “non-state” sector.

SLOW GOING

It is slow going, with farm output up just a few percentage points since President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, began agricultural reforms as part of a broader effort to “modernize” the Soviet-style economy.

Local farmers and experts say resistant bureaucrats, cautious leadership, the state’s continued monopoly on farm inputs and a lack of financing are holding up growth.

Yet, deregulation is gradually taking hold and private supply chains, whose participants were once labeled “parasitic middlemen” and even criminals by authorities, are emerging, now with the state’s blessing.

“The farmers harvest all this in the mornings, put it in sacks and weigh it, then truckers bring it in,” said purchaser Ariel Gonzales, leaning on his tricycle cart loaded with onions, garlic, carrots and other items at the Havana wholesale market.

“The food arrives the same day, it’s all fresh and at 50 percent or less of retail prices,” Gonzalez, who delivers to three small Havana retail outlets, said.

“Of course, when it rains this all turns to mud. You would think the government would pave it,” he said. “After all, we are feeding Havana.”

Five years ago 85 percent of all food produced in the country was contracted and sold by the state. By last year it had fallen to below 60 percent, according to the government. Within a few years it is expected to bottom out at around 35 percent, mainly root vegetables, grains and export crops.

“These are products not included in any contract with the state. You can sell them freely,” said Homero Rivero, a small farmer turned part time trucker and wholesale vendor as he supervised the unloading of sacks of cucumbers, crates of tomatoes and other vegetables from a vintage Ford truck.

Hundreds of purchasers swarm the area bidding for the goods, often accompanied by strapping young men with tricycle carts hired to move the produce to waiting vehicles.

FOOD NO LONGER WASTED

Rivero’s old Ford was one of many similar vintage vehicles piled with fruit, garden and root vegetables late Tuesday afternoon, even as dozens more waited to enter the makeshift market on an unpaved lot at the edge of the Cuban capital.

The market opens in the afternoon and runs into the late evening.

The scene is chaotic and crude and the trucks and carts decrepit, reflecting the precarious state of the country’s agricultural infrastructure.

“The law is that there is no law, you can do what you want with these products,” said Rivero, who is from the adjoining province of Mayabeque.

Cuba’s capital is home to 2.1 million people, 20 percent of the country’s population and is far wealthier than other cities.

Trucks arrived from all over the island, for example hawking pineapples and oranges at 7 pesos and 2 pesos each from Matanzas, 70 miles (112 km) to the east, compared with the local retail price of 15 pesos and 4 to 5 pesos respectively.

Jaimito Alvarez, who comes into Havana every 10 days from Pinar del Rio, 100 miles (160 km) to the west, said before the produce was often wasted.

“Before, if you produced more than planned, you were lucky if the state picked it up. Private food sales were forbidden and usually some of your crop rotted in the fields or was fed to the pigs,” Alvarez said.

State Sector Retailing circa 2000

State Sector retailing, 1969; Photo by Arch Ritter

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Havana market offers Cuba a taste of capitalism in the dark

Nick Miroff /Global Post

Original Complete Article: http://www.voxxi.com/havana-market-offers-cuba-capitalism/#ixzz2GqP6zInJ

HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba has yet to grasp the invisible hand of Adam Smith, but it is giving some space to an invisible market. Invisible, at least, during the day.

At night, in an empty lot at the edge of Havana’s Mariano district, an extraordinary gathering of freewheeling commerce has been taking place in recent months. Every evening after sundown, trucks and tractors from all across the island arrive loaded with fresh produce, queuing up for hours just to secure a parking spot. Throwing open their tailgates, farmers and wholesale vendors shout out their wares and cut deals in cash under the faint glow of cellphone screens and lanterns. Young men lugging tomato crates and sacks of yams swarm between the rows of trucks, dodging pushcarts vendors on makeshift tricycle carts piled high with pineapples and cucumbers.

For now, it’s the closest thing Cuba has to the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and a big development in a country where state bureaucrats have tried to set the price for produce for decades.

“What is this place called?” a visiting reporter asked a young vendor.

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “We call it ‘El Hueco’ [The Hole].”

“This is great because we can sell wholesale here. We don’t have to go out in the streets and try to find customers,” said Yulian Castillo, 28, who was offering banana bunches and 100-pound sacks of taro root for 260 pesos — about $12.

Castillo had to sell two-thirds of this year’s taro crop to the state, which only allowsfarmers to sell their harvest at market rates once they’ve met their production quotas. But Castillo said the government gave him a decent price this year, and he was free to sell the rest here.

Cuba has millions of acres of fertile farmland, but it imports some 70 percent of its food, costing the government $1.5 billion last year. Communist authorities’ perpetual struggle to get local farmers to produce more has forced them to concede a great role for private incentive in agriculture, a shift that is only beginning to extend to the rest of the economy.

And while in towns and cities across the country the government has long permitted retail produce markets that function largely on supply-and-demand market principles, there hasn’t been a central wholesale market where growers from all over the island can sell in bulk quantities. The market is a boon to farmers and fruit-and-vegetable middlemen, who said it allows the wheels of commerce to turn more efficiently by giving them a direct relationship to retail vendors. One group of farmers at the market last Wednesday had hauled their lemons all the way across the island from Santiago de Cuba — 500 miles away. There were onion growers from central Cuba’s Sancti Spiritus province in rumbling 1950s-era Ford farm trucks, and mongers from Matanzas selling squash at half the price of those at the city’s retail markets.

Alejandro Manzo had driven 200 miles from his farm in the Villa Clara province, his family’s 1957 Chevy Bel Air stuffed with garlic. In the past, the police would have tried to seize his produce on the highway, he said. “I used to have to sell on the black market,” said Manzo. “But now the state sees us farmers differently. It’s letting us get ahead. There’s nothing illegal about this anymore — it’s just supply and demand.” Manzo said he makes the trip to the capital every 10 days, selling braided ropes of garlic in 100-head strands for $12 — $3 more than he’d get back home.

Since taking over Cuba’s presidency in 2008, Raul Castro has made agriculture reform one of his signature policy moves, distributing some 3 million acres of under performing state land to private farmers and cooperatives. But his government still hasn’t taken basic steps to boost production and eliminate the farming bureaucracy that often ends up making Cuban produce more expensive for consumers. Cuban farmers still can’t buy new tractors or trucks, relying instead upon rusting Soviet machinery and 50-year-old American farm equipment.

While Havana residents say there’s more food than ever in their markets, prices have risen faster than Cubans’ meager pensions and government salaries, leaving many to complain that the state should intervene more, not less.

One reason for the market distortion, economists say, is the growing inequality in Havana between Cubans who work in low-paid government posts and those who have access to hard currency sent by relatives abroad or through jobs in tourism and private business. It’s one of several reasons that liberalization measures like the new wholesale market haven’t yet led to lower prices for Cuban consumers.

“The growth of all the new [private] restaurants and snack bars has also kept demand high,” said University of Havana economist Juan Triana.

As the government has loosened restrictions on private farmers’ ability to hire laborers, rural wages have risen, he said. “Before farmers could pay workers 15 or 20 pesos [80 cents] a day. Now it’s 40 pesos [$1.50].”

With more money to be made in farming, anecdotal evidence also suggests Cuba is slowing the trend of rural-to-urban migration that left farmers complaining of too few young people interested in growing crops.

Abel Ramos, 35, had arrived at the market at dusk, but with the line of trucks stretching down the road, he said he didn’t expect to get a spot in the market until after midnight. The wait would be worth it, he said. “Three or four years ago, I used to grow tomatoes and they would go bad while I waited for the state to buy them,” said Ramos. “Not anymore. Now I can come here.” “This is a beautiful thing,” he said.

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Cuba sugar cane marabu weeds ‘could be turned to fuel’

Original Article here: Cuba sugar cane marabu weeds ‘could be turned to fuel’

By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Ciro Redondo, Cuba

Driving the Cart past a “Marabu Woods

Drive anywhere in the Cuban countryside and you will spot the marabu lining the road: a dense, woody weed that grows as tall as trees and has invaded vast swathes of agricultural land. The land-grab began in the 1990s when Cuba was in economic crisis following the collapse of its great benefactor, the Soviet Union. The mighty sugar industry slumped too, and cane fields were overrun by marabu.

But to one British firm, the aggressive weed is less a problem than a valuable resource.

Havana Energy has just signed a $50m (£31m) investment deal to build a renewable-energy power plant in central Cuba, supplying one of the country’s biggest sugar mills as well as the national grid. During the harvest it will be fuelled by sugar-cane residue, known as bagasse. The rest of the year it will be fed with marabu. “Marabu has a very high calorific level and low moisture, so as biomass it’s very attractive,”

Harvesting marabu will also address a pressing issue on the island. “Seventy per cent of the food Cubans consume is imported, which is a national tragedy with their climate and soil,” says technical director Keith Dawson. “Every Cuban hates marabu so we’re doing a service: not just removing it but also returning the land to farming.”

The deal is a joint-venture with Cuba’s state sugar monopoly and is part of a move by the Communist government to diversify its energy supply away from dependence on subsidised, imported oil from its socialist ally, Venezuela.

“Cuba relies on diesel-powered power stations, which are even less green than coal, very expensive and give-off horrible emissions,” Mr Macdonald explains, saying his firm’s green energy will also be cheaper.

Now the papers have finally been signed, the British team face their first major test. Early next year they will import a combination of forestry and construction equipment that they hope can harvest the marabu economically. No-one has managed that yet. “You can’t underestimate marabu. We’ve brought foresters to look at it and they’ve been confused, and agricultural kit is not strong enough,” says agricultural adviser Julian Bell.

‘Terrible state’

The plant’s woody roots vary in size and are as dense as teak with fierce thorns.

“Usually you just wouldn’t bother. But I don’t know anywhere else with 1.5 million hectares covered in such a good energy source,” he says.

There is another incentive. Research at Strathclyde University has revealed that marabu produces high-grade activated carbon for use in filters – like in Cuban rum production. Potentially, the carbon could also be used in new-generation fast-charging batteries. So Havana Energy will bring a reactor to the Ciro Redondo mill next year to trial carbon manufacturing.

In the small town that grew up around the sugar mill, there is a good deal of expectation about the investment. The joint venture should create around 60 new jobs and includes funds to upgrade the dilapidated mill itself, now a century old. Only one of its three crushing machines are operational, it still has Soviet-era signs and ageing east German equipment, and large sections of the roof are missing. “It’s in a terrible state,” says retired sugar-worker Oberto Vazquez as he passes on his bicycle. “When it rains, it rains more inside than out.”

So for Cuba this venture is not only about sourcing alternative energy.

The government is in the midst of a drive to boost sugar production, cashing in on higher global prices and increased demand from countries like China. It has reopened almost a dozen old mills, targeting 20% production growth per year.

Tackling weeds

It has allowed foreign funds into the sector for the first time since the 1959 revolution. As well as the British venture, a Brazilian firm has been contracted to manage another large mill in a nearby province.

“The main [British] investment is to build the power plant, but we have negotiated access to credit to improve the cane fields and the sugar mill itself,” says Rafael Rivacoba, director of international relations at Azcuba, Cuba’s sugar firm. “I think that’s positive.” He describes further foreign investment in the sector as a possibility, but is cautious. The deal with Havana Energy took three years to negotiate. “We’re thinking about other things,” he says, admitting that international sugar brokers are knocking at his door. “But nothing’s been decided.”

On the ground in Ciro Redondo though, funding from anywhere is welcome.  The mill can only afford to irrigate 12% of its crops today; average yields in the cane fields are under half the international norm. “We have the will and the knowledge,” says manager Victor Dieguez. “But we need investment.”

That is now on its way and if this pilot project succeeds, the British team has an option to build four more power plants at other sugar mills. First though, it has to tackle the marabu: to prove that it does have the solution, to turn a weed into a valuable asset.

La Lucha Contra Marabu

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My Skepticism Runs High, but Maybe I am Wrong! Some Articles on the Moringa Oleifera.

By Arch Ritter

Fidel’s latest enthusiasm for the Moringa and the Mulberry arouses my disbelief, mainly because we have been through this movie too many times already. [See the previous blog entry: Still More “Good Advice” from Fidel!] The following articles from the Cuban press do not assuage my skepticism, the first four and the sixth having been written after Fidel’s great insights, making me think that Cuban journalistic sycophancy lives.

Could I be wrong? Sure. But the Moringa has been around for a while and has not turned out to be quite the miracle crop Fidel makes it out to be anywhere else. This makes me think that Fidel’s enthusiasms may have gotten out of hand one more time.

Here are some articles on the Moringa from the Cuban press for anyone that may be interested, courtesy of Ana Julia Faya:

1. Periodico Adelante, de Camaguey, junio 26, 2012, “Plantadas en Camaguey más de 200 hectáreas de Moringa”, http://www.adelante.cu/index.php/noticias/de-camagueey/1702-plantadas-en-camagueey-mas-de-200-hectareas-de-moringa-oleifera.html

And Cubadebate: http://www.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2012/06/26/sembradas-en-camaguey-mas-de-200-hectareas-de-moringa-oleifera/

2. Radio Maboas, de Amancio, junio 21 de 2012. “Agricultores amancieros apuestan por los beneficios de la Moringa Oleifera”, http://www.radiomaboas.cu/index.php/las-tunas/7-noticias/amancio/1387-los-agricultores-amancieros-apuestan-por-los-beneficios-de-la-moringa-oleifera

3. Periódico Escambray, Sancti Spiritus, 21 de junio de 2012, “La moringa: reseña de un árbol maravilloso,http://www.escambray.cu/2012/la-moringa-resena-de-un-arbol-maravilloso/

4. Periódico Victoria de Isla de Pinos, 20 de junio de 2012, “De la Moringa, todo“,  http://www.periodicovictoria.cu/index.php/isla-de-la-juventud/medio-ambiente/de-la-moringa-todo

5. Periódico Trabajadores, mayo 3 de 2012 (before Fidel Castro’s note on the moringa) “Sin temor a la sequía”http://www.trabajadores.cu/news/20120503/259364-sin-temor-la-sequia

6. Granma, 26 de junio de 2012: “La Moringa’”  http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2012/06/26/nacional/artic03.html

Here is Wikipedia’s discussion of the Moringa: Moringa oleifera, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The Wikipedia article emphasizes the possible role of the Moringa for purposes of Malnutrition relief. One hopes hat this is not the property of the Moringa that Fidel is expecting will be useful in the Cuban context. Here is a Wikipedia quotation:

Moringa trees have been used to combat malnutrition, especially among infants and nursing mothers. Four NGOs in particular have advocated moringa as “natural nutrition for the tropics.” One author stated that “the nutritional properties of Moringa are now so well known that there seems to be little doubt of the substantial health benefit to be realized by consumption of Moringa leaf powder in situations where starvation is imminent.”  Moringa is especially promising as a food source in the tropics because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce

As for the other wonder-plant, the Mulberry, the most famous Mulberry was the portable  artificial harbor constructed on the Normandy beaches for the WWII D-Day liberation of Europe, as pictured below.

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Still More “Good Advice” from Fidel!

By Arch Ritter

Fidel visits a collective farm. The manager of the farm says: “Fidel, all our chickens are dying and we don’t know what to do.”

Fidel replies: “The chickens are suffering from a salt deficiency. Feed them more salt.”

The workers on the  farm then feed the chickens more salt. A year later, Fidel happens to visit the chicken collective again. The manager says “Fidel, almost all our chickens have died. What should we do?”

Fidel pulls on his beard, thinks hard, and says sagaciously: “Your chickens are suffering from a deficiency of pepper. Feed them some pepper.”

The chickens are then fed pepper. The following year, Fidel again passes through the farm. The manager says: “Fidel, all our chickens have died. We are lost.”

Fidel says: “What a pity. And I still have so many more good ideas.”

[This story came to me originally with a Rabbi in the place of Fidel.]

Cuba’s economic history is in part a history of his “Good Ideas”, imposed on Cuba, with the support and adulation of acolytes, devotees and yes-men and with the suppression of criticism. Think of Instant Industrialization (1961-1963), the “Revolutionary Offensive (1968), the 10 million tons sugar harvest goal, the “New Man”, the Havana Green Belt project and shutting down half the sugar mills (2002).

Fidel now has yet another “Good Idea” reproduced below in his new reader-friendly format, namely a haiku-length quasi-twitter statement. Perhaps he learned from Yoani Sanchez that “brevity is the soul of wit” and also beats three-hour verbosity.

Reflections of Fidel
Nutrition and healthful employment
(Taken from CubaDebate)

“THE conditions have been created for the country to begin massively producing Moringa Oleífera and mulberry, which are sustainable resources [for the production of] meat, eggs, milk and silk fiber which can be woven by artisans, providing well-remunerated employment as an added benefit, regardless of age or gender.”

Fidel Castro Ruz
June 17, 2012
2:55 p.m. •

(See Reflections  of Fidel)

This looks like déjà vu all over again with Fidel proposing a new massive scheme. Thankfully the former President is totally out of the economic picture. If he were still the Big Boss in charge of the central planning system, we could expect some billions would be invested in another untested hare-brained scheme. I still remember Fidel’s adulatory descriptions of “Black Velvet,” the Canadian breeding bull, which was supposed to revolutionize Cuba’s milk cow herds and lead to unlimited supplies of milk, butter etc. Now the new agricultural miracle is Moringa Oleífera and mulberry!

In contrast, President Raul, the pragmatist, might order a study for some four years before deciding whether or not to run a pilot project. Or, more likely now, perhaps an independent farmer might give it a try and if it works, others will adopt it and then in time still others– which is how innovation occurs in a decentralized market economy.

Moringa Oleífera

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Presentations from the Bildner Center, (CUNY) “COLLOQUIUM ON THE CUBAN ECONOMY” May 2012,

On May 12, The Bildner Center at City University of New York, under the leadership of Mauricio Font organized a one-day conference analyzing the recent experience of the Cuban economy in its process of transformation.  All of the Power Point presentations from the  “COLLOQUIUM ON THE CUBAN ECONOMY” have been posted on the  Center’s Web Site. The presentations of the Cuban participants, all from the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, namely Omar Everleny, Pavel Vidal, Camila Piñeiro, and Armando Nova, are especially valuable and informative as they provide up-to-date and inside analyses of major issue areas. Mauricio, Mario González-Corzo, and the team are certainly to be congratulated for organizing this event

All of the presentations can be be accessed at the Bildner Web Site via the hyperlinks listed below in the form of the program of the conference.

Session #1: Cuban Updates on Actualización

1. Cuentapropismo y ajuste estructural
Omar Everleny, University of Havana

2. Microfinanzas en Cuba
Pavel Vidal, University of Havana

3. Non-state Enterprises in Cuba: Current Situation and Prospects
Camila Piñeiro, University of Havana

4. Impacto de los Lineamientos de la Política Económico y Social en la producción nacional de alimento
Armando Nova, University of Havana

Moderator: Mauricio Font, Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies

Session # 2: Strategic Initiatives: Agriculture

1. Measuring Cuba’s Agricultural Transformations: Preliminary Findings
Mario González-Corzo, Lehman College, CUNY

2. U.S. Food and Agricultural Exports to Cuba – Uncertain Times Ahead
Bill Messina, University of Florida

Moderator: Emily Morris, Economist Intelligence Unit in London

Session # 3: Revamping Socialism: Perspectives and Prospects

1. Actualización in Perspective
Mauricio Font, Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies

2. Cuban Restructuring: Economic Risks
Emily Morris, Economist Intelligence Unit in London

3. Prospects in a Changing Geo-Economic Environment Archibald Ritter, Carleton University, Canada

ROUNDTABLE: Implications and Future Agenda


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