Rigo and the Land

Photo: LInda Klipp

HAVANA TIMES – When the first sunrays begin to color the sky in shades of orange and pink, Rigo drinks a cup of coffee, his only breakfast, and heads out to work. His figure is silhouetted against the growing light of day, an outline that moves with deliberate slowness. He carries on his back the years of a life dedicated to the land, every line on his face carved out by the sun and rain.

From the time he was small, he’s followed this routine. Along with his machete and hoe, he carries a box to sit down on, while, little by little, he labors to clear the terrain of marabu bushes and weeds. Age has limited the obligations he can assume, but he hasn’t lost his urge to “devour the whole world.”

Every step taken amid the planted rows is a testament to his connection with the earth. He seems to know each rock, every change in the soil. He stops occasionally and bends over, with difficulty, but without hurrying, to pull out some weed, or to closely inspect the progress of the growing plants.

For years now, the marabu bushes have extended their range over the plains that once upon a time served for the cultivation of sugar cane, rice, vegetables or for grazing cattle. Nothing escapes its thick branches with thorns that discourage even the most intrepid farmers.

But Rigo hasn’t given up yet. No one knows the land like he does, and in his hands, everything flourishes and gives fruit. He’s a man of the countryside, brusque and coarse to some. He doesn’t know anything about technology, modern life or trends; he doesn’t understand anything about politics, but he recognizes the roots of our agricultural problems.

He was born in 1939, and as the son of farmers learned that to eat you have to produce; that the land is a good resource if worked on with dedication. He delights in the wind that moves the branches and shakes the leaves, creating patterns of light and shadows on the ground in a mosaic that every breeze reshapes. The banana leaves, large and robust, with irregular edges and a venous texture, become the perfect canvases for this play of lights.

Rigo reviews every error in the system, all the time sitting on his stool with a cup of coffee in his hands. Sparks of sunlight filter between the leaves, a natural prism that decomposes the light into its most delicate components.

He agrees with the government when it reaffirms the importance of cultivating the greatest possible extension of land in the country, and of incorporating more people into production. But he distrusts the solutions they has effected in regards to this topic. How could he not feel distrustful when these same solutions have now been demonstrating their ineffectiveness for some sixty-plus years?

He hasn’t forgotten that 1970 campaign when they used bulldozers and dynamite to raze the forests, to plant an abundance of sugar cane, with the aim of satisfying the demands of the Eastern Europe Communist bloc. Only to end up decades later with many of the sugar mills dismantled and their parts and machinery exported or lost to some other failed project.

The overall result of such projects has been to leave the sugar mills and towns stripped of life, while the maribu bush reigns healthy over all, like an indisputable symbol of the economic disaster.

Rigo recognizes that today the scarcity of resources has become one of the most powerful weights pulling the rural sector down. But it’s also true that in the days when resources were relatively abundant and not very costly, the agricultural sector never attained the hoped-for yields. This indicates that the current and past situation isn’t only due to scarce resources, but also to more profound structural and institutional factors.

Historically, the Cuban agricultural model has been characterized by highly centralized management, with strong state controls on production, distribution and prices. Even though this model supposedly seeks to guarantee the equitable distribution of resources and products, in practice it has resulted in inefficiencies, a lack of incentives for producers, and difficulties in adapting to rapid changes in market demands or environmental conditions.

The structure of the incentives for farmers and agricultural producers has been a persistent problem. The prices set by the state for many agricultural products doesn’t always reflect the costs of production, nor do they offer sufficient profit margins.

The restrictions on the commercialization of agricultural products, and the bureaucracy associated with the sale and distribution of products has also limited the sector’s efficiency. The difficulty of accessing direct markets has discouraged some producers and has contributed to post-harvest losses.

Cuba’s dependence on imported food, even in times when resources were more available, points to a weakness in its food security, and in the potential of the agricultural sector to satisfy the population’s needs.

Although reforms have been introduced to decentralize the sector and grant more autonomy to the producers, the implementation of these reforms has faced obstacles. Changes in policies and regulations often require time for their implementation, and for their effects on production to become visible.

What’s certain is that radical change is needed; you can’t advance into the future by repeating failed schemes and hoping to get a different result.

Meanwhile, Rigo continues his daily ritual which, repeated all along the course of many years, is more than just a simple job. It’s a moment of deep connection with nature, an act of love and dedication that transcends time.

Rigo is an old soul who renews with every dawn his commitment to the earth he loves, a land that – like himself – at that hour is preparing to face another day, another cycle of life and transformation.

Read more from the diary of Fabiana del Valle here.