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    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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