You Can’t Choose Your Own Potatoes

By Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

A line at a State market to purchase potatoes. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — A lot of people have to rack their brains today with Cuban reality, which is in some way, let’s say, picturesque. The theory behind it is founded on deep spiritual categories, with high resounding words and idealism which are like those of priests.

Meanwhile, society’s more direct philosophical problems are manifesting themselves in reality, with so much force and clarity as in the sale of potatoes. Of course, potatoes aren’t so elegant and dealing with them doesn’t give you such prestige.

The popular root vegetable and its availability in Cuba have sparked true passions. The potato production-retail-consumption chain is full of sharp contradictions. In my ignorance, I’m convinced that there are more chances of recognizing and learning Marxism there than in the lectures given by so many loudmouths about intangible ideas and other phenomena. Learning which could, should, lead to making solution-making easier.

Year after year, commercialization of potatoes at Cuban markets has awoken many anxieties. Here, it isn’t about the digressions about the culture of being and having; nobody became confused in the theoretical debate about how to be an obedient rebel. The issue here is whether you can put a plate of potatoes on the table or not, for the next meal. The subject is a lot more pressing, more profane. And, apparently, a lot more simple.

The picture which accompanies this material reflects the latest managerial trends in “resolving” this problem. The proposed “solutions” deserve a prominent place in the Kafkian-Cuban museum.

For the not very well-informed, a few years ago, potatoes used to be a part of regulated food items, on the Cuban rations book or “libreta”. A pound of potatoes used to cost a few cents of a regular peso, which only covered a tiny fraction of the production cost. In an effort to eliminate the subsidy, the government decided to hike up prices to a peso (approximately 5 cents USD) and released its sale on the free market.

If the new price covered the costs of production or not, the thing is that demand immediately surpassed supply, bringing on the ensuing consequences of shortages, hoarding and reselling. Although they didn’t go back to the old price, now the sale of potatoes is being regulated again, and there are a few new surprises as you will see.

Let’s take a look at what’s new and the consequences of these changes. The amount of potatoes that corresponds to a household cannot be divided, which means you have to take all the potatoes that you should get, in one go. It isn’t strange in this country for 3 generations to live under the same roof, with 6,7 or more people.

Also, a lot of the time, the person available to do these errands in these ration markets is elderly. It better be a strong old man or woman so they can carry the several dozens of pounds of potatoes, back home.

You can’t select your potatoes, take what you get.

And the icing on the cake is that these potatoes – and the sign stresses this greatly – “CAN’T” be chosen. You have to take what… what they give you. Whatever the seller puts in your plastic bag. Whether they are big, medium-sized or small; green or rotten. Who do you think you are, customer? Can you choose the kind of school your children go to? Or the company that provides your telecommunications services? Can anybody remember the last time that they chose the mayor of their town, their boss at work, the president of the Republic? Just like you can’t choose the fuel you need to cook, or what kind of religious ceremony you watch on the TV.

Comrade, you can’t choose the Pope either and we’ve never seen you kick up a fuss! So, in order to keep things coherent, we can’t choose our potatoes. And those of us who have potatoes should be grateful for being legal residents in the country’s capital. Why the fuss, according to what my work colleagues who come from eastern provinces swear over and over to me, potatoes haven’t even reached there in the last few years except for on the black market.

This way of “distributing” gives anybody an opportunity, free of charge, to experience the nonsence we experience here everyday. At this point of the ideological dispute, the group “over there” doesn’t have to even make an effort for the belief to reinforce in people’s minds that, in the “other system”, things are much easier.

These potato problems influence hearts and minds more than any bell. However no government philosopher, the kind which goes on and on about other country’s flags on bici-taxis and the influence of social media in a population where Internet is scarce, is dedicated to deal with this.

The most we can hope for is that a light is shone on some show such as Cuba dice. These kinds of spaces deal with some popular concerns – with the higher authorities’ authorization of course. In fact, here you can find opinions, demands and heated discussion, but not much comes out of it.

The conversation surrounding potatoes will continue, focused on whether it will be sold on regulated or free market or rationed; subsidized or not. In how it is distributed in one market or another and how much the seller steals from the customer. Every year that passes by, administrative measures will add new surreal condiments to the potatoes we put on our plates.

Since the attempts to face these problems stem from mistaken premises, they can only lead to poor results. And the worst mistakes are made over and over again, because of our leadership’s ignorance of basic Marxism, their ignorance or opportunism; or God knows what.

The crux, the main base of any socialist project, which determines its difference from the capitalist model, isn’t founded on distribution. It lies in production. The questioning of this type of State property of Cuban agricultural companies that produce potatoes doesn’t exist. The rural class and agricultural workers are needed, only, to maintain the government’s bureaucratic hierarchy which makes its way to the corresponding ministry. It doesn’t delve into the restrictions of paid work, or harvesting a particular food or those of the social model generally-speaking.

In this way, it will be very difficult to fix the Cuban potato problem – just like so many others.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    Only those who live in Cuba actually understand the content of your article Rogelio. The idea of regarding the common potato as being a much desired and valuable product doesn’t occur in the free world – hence the lack of comment!
    Potatoes originated in South America in Chile where there are over 400 varieties. But for the reasons you provide (ie: cost of production) small 3-4 acre farmers in Cuba choose not to produce any for sale – it is left to state enterprise (that in itself is a joke).
    Going back a few years, potatoes used to appear from a co-operative in our community, but even it ceased production and they are now a rarity.