Cuban farmers must sell most of what they produce at state mandated prices. But after they meet their quotas (typically about 70 percent of their output) they are free to sell the rest at farmer's markets, or agros. At the markets, prices are higher, but there are plenty of choices and the stalls feel abundant compared to the often-empty shelves of the state groceries:
At one such market this week, a chalkboard read "there are potatoes," meaning spuds could be purchased with Cubans' monthly ration cards. Besides that, a single produce stand sold only plantains, taro root and onions.
"They want to make all the markets like this. Sad," the lone vendor said.
Price controls on food come and go in Cuba, with the state permitting market mechanisms in times of extreme scarcity, but then cracking down again once things get better:
Producers, sellers and customers said they heard from party officials that new price controls were set to begin Nov. 1 — but were postponed until January after a public outcry unheard of under the totalitarian government....
The agros [farmer's markets] first appeared in the 1980, when food shortages forced a reluctant Fidel Castro to allow farmers to sell produce at prices driven, at least in part, by the free market. Castro shuttered them six years later to improve foundering state agricultural production.
"They closed them for some of the same things we are talking about now: the black market, middle men making all kinds of money, the government unable to control the market, the food supply," Messina said.
But the small dose of capitalism returned in 1994, when Cuba was again forced to allow more free-market enterprise to keep its people from starving after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave Cuba billions in annual subsidies.
The state takes 6 months to pay farmers for official production, so many farmers are tempted by the agro truckers, who generally bribe the police to turn a blind eye and pay farmers in cash upfront. Raul Castro is threatening to crack down.
The whole AP story is worth reading for a good sense of the background on this issue and what's going on right now.