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Economic Change and Farmers Markets in Contemporary Cuba


The Cuban Revolution has generated remarkable social achievements through a unique style of people-centered development. However, economic productivity has remained low, and for much of the Revolution agriculture has strongly revolved around the cultivation of sugarcane. The fall of the Soviet Union caused severe hardships in Cuba, leading to contractions in the economy and decreases in food imports. The government responded to these circumstances through measures like promoting tourism and foreign direct investment, legalizing the U.S. dollar, permitting self-employment, and creating farmers markets in which supply and demand determined prices. While during the 1990’s these were regarded as temporary actions to meet needs, President Raul Castro has sought to change the structure of Cuba’s socialist model. The 2011 Sixth Conference of the Communist Party marked a turning point in the reform process and stressed decentralization the economy, achieving higher economic productivity, and moving away from notions of egalitarianism. Castro noted that “updating” the Cuban economy could not occur overnight, and that implementing the revised model would take at least five years.

This thesis examines how recent economic reforms to decentralize the economy have affected the lives of individuals. I utilize farmers markets as a case study of these reforms and ask: What do the experiences of sellers and buyers in farmers markets indicate about the larger process of change in Cuba? To examine this question, during 2016 I conducted ethnographic interviews with market sellers and potential buyers in the cities of Havana and Santiago over a period of nearly two months. When comparing the markets where entrepreneurs sold to those operated by the state, I found that entrepreneurs consistently offered a wider range of higher quality products, but at elevated prices (three times state levels in Havana, and two times in Santiago). These prices were unaffordable for many individuals, yet particularly affected the elderly and those without remittances. While farmers markets are beneficial in terms of making produce available, not all can purchase what they need. Interviews showed that the quality and variety of entrepreneurs’ produce resulted from possessing autonomy in decision-making, feeling a sense of ownership, and knowing that their efforts would yield tangible results. While market sellers worked as entrepreneurs because it offered necessary financial benefits, at the same time sellers highlighted that socialism possessed various merits.

General participants in this study utilized a wide range of strategies to fulfill their needs, and often described these strategies through the terms “invent” (inventar) or “resolve” (resolver). Although food is where the low purchasing power of the Cuban peso is most problematic, other basic necessities also result costly. However, not all Cubans face the same realities. This was demonstrated by the manner in which interviewees viewed the ration book- while some no longer used their monthly allotments, for others they continued to play a significant role in satisfying food needs. One participant went so far as to say that certain people would starve if rations were removed. Overall, this study finds that individuals perceive the changes occurring in Cuba to be gradual, and mostly restricted to the economic realm. While socialism remains important, some interviewees were inclined towards pragmatism. They were much more concerned with whether government policies would improve their quality of life, than if these policies were socialist or capitalist per se. Although economic reforms have produced gains for some, ensuring the well-being of all Cubans will require additional updating of the economy in the coming years.

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