A Ground Level Look at Cuba's Farm Policy
May 18, 2012
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
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
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
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