Elio Delgado Legon
HAVANA TIMES – Covering the history of Cuba’s agricultural sector in a brief article is no easy task. First of all, we have to establish the two very different eras: before 1959 and post-1959, up until our present day.
From 1898 (when the war against Spain ended) until 1902, Cuba was occupied by the US army, a time when they took advantage to colonize part of the island, buying vast expanses of the country’s best land for a joke of a price, mainly to plant sugar cane and dedicate them to livestock.
At the same time, some Cuban “entrepreneurs” took advantage of the rampant corruption during this time and also bought or took over large estates which they divided up into farms to rent them out to farmers who didn’t own land.
This is how well-known practices of exploitation spread across the country, with renters, tenant farmers and land squatters; who didn’t own the land they toiled over, or the shacks where they lived, because they were always at risk of being evicted, if the land changed owner.
Farmers’ produce didn’t have a guaranteed market, as traders preferred grains imported from the US, which were cheaper, as well as other products such as beef and pork which were also very cheap.
On the other hand, irrigation systems were practically non-existant in the Cuban countryside, unless there was a river nearby or an abundant groundwater layer. If there wasn’t and there was a drought for a year or two, then hunger took over the countryside.
Since 1959, Cuba’s agricultural landscape began to change with the first Agrarian Reform Act, signed by Fidel Castro on May 17th that very same year, which gave ownership to farmers of the land they worked on, while the State compensated legal owners of these plots, whether they were Cuban or not (although the US owners refused to accept this compensation).
During that time, agricultural production wasn’t very high, because of the lack of irrigation and application of science; but the country only had five and a half million inhabitants back then, so it wasn’t hard to supply them with the produce they needed. However, when the political situation changed on the island and the dictatorship was overthrown, the population began to grow exponentially until there were almost 12 million inhabitants, which of course demanded a gradual increase in agricultural production.
Today, farmers are organized in credit and service cooperatives, basic units of cooperative production and individual farmers, all of whom belong to the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). Plus, there are state-run agricultural companies, and all have guaranteed the sale of their produce via Acopio (Cuba’s State purchasing entity), as well as the meat industry, dairy industry, to name a few of the marketing possibilites.
Cuban agriculture has been modernized over all this time, with more and more irrigated lands, and they have 9.5 billion cubic meters of dammed water, as well as highly important hydraulic projects, which have gradually increased the amount of land that can be irrigated, as our agricultural sector now has to provide for over 11 million inhabitants and contribute as much as it can to the tourism sector, another 5 million visitors a year.
As part of policies created to encourage agricultural production, free use of 1.4 million hectares of land has been granted to over 240,000 individuals and entities, which has led to a gradual increase in production.
Other statistics which make up this brief synthesis, as well as the gradual increase of irrigated land, agriculture has a system of scientific centers, and their research and results are introduced in production. Meanwhile, almost all of our agricultural companies and cooperatives are headed by agronomists, educated at Cuban universities over all these years.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that most Cuban land is low yield for agriculture, which forces us to constantly work on improving the soil, trying to also use the least amount of chemical fertilizers as we can, which are harmful to our health and the environment.
On the other hand, climate change (which is already a reality) damages our agriculture every year in some way or another, with extreme drought, saline intrusion in the groundwater layer, extreme weather events, such as hurricanes etc., which have affected sugar cane production, with three consecutive years of drought which wiped out all of the sugar cane on non-irrigated land and Hurricane Irma (in November 2017) which damaged 380,000 hectares of sugar cane and caused considerable damage to 24 sugar mills.
If you want to make any kind of serious analysis about Cuban agriculture, you need to bear all of this in mind, as well as the US’ criminal economic, commercial and financial blockade. Yet, in spite of all of this, Cuba’s agricultural sector is ploughing ahead.