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Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

by Jack Gray

Introduction and History

In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent farmers. We traveled through the western half of Cuba for two weeks visiting farms and talking to farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

Cuba has been a socialist country since a few years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in January of 1959. The goals of the revolution and the radical changes that have come about over the last 21 years are keys to understanding present-day Cuba.

Life in Cuba prior to 1959, simply put, was miserable for most and luxurious for a few. 70% of Cuba’s total area was monopolized by only 8% of those who owned land. One third of the island was owned by 250 cattle latifundias (ranches). Sugar, however, ruled supreme. Sugar estates controlled 70-75% of the arable land. The heavy concentration in sugar caused very high annual unemployment because of the seasonality of the zafra, the sugar cane harvest. At the same time it kept land out of food production, and forced a heavy reliance on imported food. The result of all these factors was a poverty-ridden society of unemployment, malnutrition, ill health, illiteracy and a terribly corrupt government. Conditions were ripe for a change.

In January of 1959, the change began. After two years of bitter fighting the regime of Fulgencio Batista finally crumbled. Fidel Castro’s peasant-based revolution had been fought and won in the name of social and economic justice for all. Since 1959 Castro’s government has maintained these goals and improved the welfare of almost all Cubans.

In 1959 the life expectancy in Cuba was 50 years, by 1979 it had risen to 72 years. The infant mortality rate was estimated at 60 deaths per thousand live births in the 1950’s while in the first 6 months of 1979 the rate was a low 14.6 deaths per thousand compared to the 1976 U.S. rate of 15.1. The improvement in dental care was evident to one Cuban member of our tour who had left Cuba in 1961. He marveled at the beautiful and healthy teeth of the rural children we saw. There were 1 million illiterates in 1959 (1957 population was 6.4 million), in 1979 there were only 12,000 who were of age but hadn’t received a sixth grade education. The strides in health and education have been proclaimed the greatest achievements of the revolution. By 1968 the State employed everyone except for those who were still farming privately.

In no sector of Cuban society have things changed more in the last 21 years than in agriculture. Two Agrarian Reform Acts in 1959 and 1963 gave, free of charge, clear title to the land they had worked, to more than 100,000 sharecroppers and small tenant farmers. At the same time they nationalized all corporate farms and made it illegal for any single private landowner to own more than 167 acres. The reforms also made it illegal for any nonfarmers to own or purchase land. Farmers can pass their farms on to their children only if their children are going to work the land. If the children choose not to farm, then they must sell the land to the State.

With this, a new goal for Cuban agriculture emerged. Rather than supplying profits to a few, Cuban agriculture’s goal became that of meeting the needs of all Cubans. At first, since sugar had always meant poverty to the rural poor, the concentration was on increasing food at the expense of sugar production. So rice production increased by 96%, beans 136%, corn 92%, and potatoes 46% in the first three years after the revolution. But Cuba soon learned that along with food they needed other commodities such as petroleum, fertilizer, and machinery if their country was to prosper. In order to import they had to export, so Cuba fell back on what it could grow best, sugar. Once again sugar took on its traditional place as the key factor in the Cuban economy but this time it was used as the major source of foreign exchange. Even though sugar production is still number one, the effort to diversify and increase food production carries on.

The Tour Begins

Our tour began in Havana with an orientation session with Lazaro Perez Perdomo, Foreign Relations Director of ANAP. Looking back on it, the session was very informative, because he outlined the agricultural system in Cuba and the functions of ANAP. Most people know that Cuba is socialist but few realize that 21% of the country is owned privately by independent farmers. It is these farmers that are ANAP members. The ANAP membership is very important to Cuban agriculture, producing the following % of total production:

  • Sugar 18
  • Tobacco 78
  • Vegetables 64
  • Coffee 55
  • Fruits 59
  • Root Crops 33
  • Cocoa 72
  • Cattle 29

ANAP is the go-between which links the independent farmer and the State. It coordinates and helps fit Cuba’s only private sector into the socialist planned economy. ANAP also works for the farmer in bringing farm problems and suggestions to the attention of the State.

One key to understanding Cuban agriculture is to understand the three broad forms of farm organizations. The first is simply the private farmer who operates his own farm. The average size of these farms is 32 acres though many are subsistence level plots of an acre or less and the largest by law is only 167 acres. For the most part these farmers, though independent, belong to local ANAP associations for credits and services through which they obtain credit from the state issued in fertilizer, seed and equipment at 6% interest. When it comes time to sell, they sell all they produce to ACOPIO, the government marketing agency.

The second form of organization is also private. In this case, however, individual farmers have banded together to form cooperatives in which their parcels of land are owned and farmed together as one unit. Co-op members are split into work crews and are paid wages as well as a share of co-op profits. Co-ops also sell their produce to ACOPIOs but they receive their credit from the state at only 4% interest.

The final form is the State farm. All of the largest farms, many of which are sugar cane, beef cattle or dairy farms, are owned by the State and are worked by employees of the State. State farms consist, for the most part, of land taken over from large landholders through the Agrarian Reforms but also of land purchased from independent farmers. At retirement age many independents sell out to the State in exchange for free housing and a pension.

The Farms

The best way (the easiest for me) to give more detail on Cuban agriculture in general and on some farms in particular is to just tell of some of our farm visits.

On our trip to Cienfuegos in the south our first stop was the Espartaco Sugar Mill. It was built in 1837 and its last major modernization had been in 1911. Even so, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the mill. Very few modern sugar plants have been built. This slowness to modernize underscores the fact that Cuba is a very poor country. There are many things that Cubans would like but progress is slow. There is only so much that they can afford. One of the interesting things about the mill is that it is powered completely by burning bagasse. Bagasse is the fibrous remains of the sugar cane after all of the sugary liquid is squeezed out. It is also used to make paper and pressboard.

Cuban Agriculture

On the way back to our hotel we were lucky enough to talk our Cuban guide and interpreter, Carlos Alfonso, into stopping at a small farm along the road. As we streamed off our bus we were met by the owner of the farm, a very friendly older man. He wasn’t taken back at all, largely because he was very proud of his farm and definitely wanted to show it off. He quickly started answering our questions and told us what he thought we should know. He had 7 acres which were beautifully laid out. Three quarters of his land was leased to the State and was currently in tomatoes, which he rotated with rice. He received 80 pesos per month rent from the State. A peso was worth about $1.30, so if 5 acres were rented all year, he was getting about $250 per acre. On the rest of his land he grew papayas, malanga, lemons, oranges, beans, bananas, okra and a few pigs. None of his land was wasted. He even had tomatoes and guava plants growing up through his barbed wire fence and a row of peppers between the fence and an irrigation ditch two feet away. The place was beautiful. He had purchased the pump with which he watered his farm from the association of credits and services that he belonged to. He worked his farm with a team of oxen and his only equipment seemed to be a ditcher and a walking plow that he had had for 35 years. The produce he grew and maybe an occasional pig were sold to ACOPIO or anyone who happened along and wanted to buy. In one small corner of the farm were four or five tiny houses in which 25 people lived. The man had 10 children, several of whom lived there with their families. Even with 10 children none of them wanted to stay and work the farm. Some problems are universal.

Cuban Agriculture

Typical old style ox-drawn plow.

From our bus window we saw many small independent farms and this one seemed between the two extremes. Many were plots of an acre or two; They would have a small wood and/or grass hut called a Bohio, a small garden and perhaps a goat or a couple of pigs. With luck they might be self-sufficient. At the other extreme was the type of private farm that we visited from our Havana base.

Cuban Agriculture

Jesus Menendez Association Farm.

The farm we saw on the outskirts of Havana was very different even from the 7 acre farm that we saw in Cienfuegos. The area we visited supplies vegetables and root crops to the tables of Havana. The farm is a member of the Jesus Menendez Independent Farmers Association for Credit and Services. The association is made up of 42 farms with an average size of 67 acres. Before the revolution most of these farmers rented from a few big land owners. The revolution gave them their land and now they are prosperous and very thankful. We visited the farm of the President of the association. As the map indicates he had a very diversified 56 acre farm. We asked them how they decided what to grow. Their response was that they owed a lot to “the revolution”, the term generally used to describe the current government, so they pretty much agreed to grow whatever the State thought best. The farmers association as a whole would agree to the plan and then they worked out who would grow what. The association tries to give every farmer a mix of high and low priced crops but nonetheless some would end up “sacrificing” a bit more. Those who didn’t go along with the plan would not get any harvest help and would be chastized at the annual meeting of the association.

Cuban Agriculture

56 acre farm at Jesus Menendez Independent Farmer’s Association.

The farmers in the association get extra help from a number of different sources. Within the association there are four mutual assistance brigades which are organized to help each other out at busy times. In some cases they actually hire a State worker to work an extra job. A major State program throughout Cuba had school children helping with farm work. The State feels that part of a child’s education should be using their hands in farming. This is both an attempt to get urban kids out into the countryside to break down the bias against farming and rural life, and to make children productive members of society by supplying unskilled labor. This was done through two programs: schools-in-the-countryside and schools-to-the-countryside. The first program is just what it sounds like. Junior and senior high boarding schools are built out in rural areas, usually as an integral part of a State farm. The students have classroom studies half the time, and the other half is spent working in the fields. Though usually used in State farms the schools-to-the-countryside program was being used by farmers in the Jesus Menendez Association. In this program the entire student body spends 45 days in productive agricultural work. The farmers pay the State on a piece work basis, so much for weeding a certain length row of tomatoes or picking so many pounds of beans, etc. The last major source of extra help is from “volunteers”. For major harvests such as tobacco, citrus and sugar cane, many urban adults head to the countryside to help. This is usually done on State farms where the volunteer work is seen as patriotic work. One farm cooperative we visited used volunteers organized through urban block groups called CDRs. The cooperative paid the CDR for its members’ work. The co-op said that some help is better than others and that one bus driver that volunteers every year is the best tobacco cutter around.

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