Informacion economica sobre Cuba

A Ground Level Look at Cuba's Farm Policy

May 18, 2012

Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES – This week marks the anniversary of the signing into law

of Cuba's Agrarian Reform, which transformed the life of tens of

thousands of peasant families who were subject to the cruelest forms of

misery, as a 1957 survey of the Catholic University Group documented.

The farm workers were able to stop their constant traveling in search of

work in the harvests, and they settled down on farms of their own, from

which no one could ever again evict them. Their children had access to

school and they themselves were taught how to read and write.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary government soon came to believe that

agricultural collectivization was more in line with their ideology than

individual plots. They pressured the farmers to annex their land onto

the state farms or to the cooperatives, also controlled by the State.

The Soviet-style "koholz" was imposed on Cuba despite the poor results

that they had exhibited in the European socialist countries. Mr. Ramón

Labaut, my wife's communist grandfather, gave up his lands with

pleasure, but his son-in-law Narváez Arias decided to continue in the

old style.

A few years ago we went up into the mountains and visited the farms;

that of the grandfather has been swallowed by vines. That of the Arias

family, in contrast, produces so much coffee that they have built a nice

house in town and he lives there in retirement while his children

continue working the land.

Alejandro Robaina, the tobacco grower, was another of the rebellious

farmers: he roundly refused to give up the lands that his father and his

grandfather had planted. Decades later, Fidel Castro himself approached

him to inquire how he had managed to achieve such yield and quality.

Mr. Robaina was a plain-spoken man, and responded by saying that if Cuba

wanted to develop a good tobacco crop, the only way was to give the

lands back to the farmers. And life has proven him right.

Most of the Cuban soil is very compact, so tractors are needed to turn

it. Photo: Raquel Pérez

In the eighties, Fidel Castro counseled the French Communist Party

leader George Marchais: "Don't even think about socialized agriculture.

Leave the small producers alone, don't touch them. If you do, say

goodbye to your good wine, your good cheese and your excellent foie

gras." (1)

Nevertheless, for two more decades the Cuban leaders insisted uselessly

on looking for new forms of collectivization that could surpass the

productivity of the small farmer. It wasn't until 2008 that it was

decided to put the land into the hands of the "guajiros" and others who,

although not farmers or peasants, were willing to dedicate themselves to

this way of life.

The bureaucracy set to work immediately: they prohibited them from

constructing houses on the farm; they prohibited them from importing

machinery; they attached exorbitant prices to the few tools that were

available for sale; and they obligated them to distribute their products

only through "Acopio", the State network famous for its inefficiency.

Despite all the obstacles, the guajiros used machetes to clear the

marabou brush weeds, raised production, and left the country wondering

what they would in fact be capable of doing if only they were given

freedom to decide, if they were sold agricultural inputs, and were

allowed to buy trucks for distributing their products.

I met a retired functionary from the Ministry of Foreign Trade who had

received a parcel of land on the outskirts of Havana and now raises pigs

with tremendous success; he grows the food for his animals and cooks

with biogas that comes from their waste matter.

Agriculture is tough work, but in Cuba it has a certain attraction.

Small farmers not only have access to education and health benefits, but

they have also become one of the more prosperous sectors of the

population, a rarity in Latin America.

The life of the Cuban peasant changed radically when land was

distributed to them in 1959. Photo: Raquel Pérez

At any rate, the lack of water and the erosion of the soil makes it

difficult to imagine that local agriculture could ever supply all of the

country's necessities. Even in 1959, with half of the current

population, Cuba imported a large volume of food.

I asked a farmer one day if it were true that Cuban land will produce

anything you plant on it. He smiled astutely and said: "Yes, if you're

referring to tropical products, and if you enrich it with fertilizers,

and you fumigate with pesticides and if you apply herbicides and you

install irrigation systems."

Only with great difficulty could Cuba become the garden that the popular

imagination dreams of, but neither does it have to continue being a land

plagued with weeds with a productive yield much less than that of a

half-century ago.

The land distribution has begun to bear its first fruits, but in order

to advance more in this they will need to eliminate the foolish

restrictions imposed by an inefficient agricultural bureaucracy which

would be better off shrinking into non-existence, together with the

agricultural model that engendered it.

If 53 years ago the Cuban peasant raised high the slogan of "Land for

those who work it!", today they should understand that this in itself is

not enough: they also need resources, and above all the power of

decision and participation in the design of agrarian policies.

(1) From the book, "A hundred hours with Fidel," by the author Ignacio


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