Cuba’s Abundant Land and Food Shortages

Miguel Arias Sanchez

Illustration by Carlos

HAVANA TIMES – Cuba is an underdeveloped or developing country, whatever one wants to call it. It is not a country that has large industries, it depends on revenue from tourism, tobacco, rum and sugar. And that it is not enough to cover our needs and resolve our problems.

However, there is something blessed in this nation that has not been given the importance it deserves, and it is the land.

From a very young age I always heard my father say: “this land is blessed, drop a sweet potato in it and immediately a plant is born, it is a very fertile land and anything that is sowed brings a harvest, and very good quality.”

But despite all this, we Cubans do not value in all its magnitude the benefits it can bring for our diet – and life in general – that we can obtain from its cultivation.

During the Special Period crisis in the 1990s and the lack of food of all kinds, which created a very difficult situation in the country, came ideas to alleviate the serious problem with our own effort. 

So, we began to sow in every space that was possible; also the famous organopónicos (urban intensive agriculture) were created, which still exist today in many municipalities and which greatly help in the acquisition of some vegetables and condiments.  Back then in the 90s every yard, garden or barren field in the cities became cultivated.

But that was dismissed as soon as the situation “improved” a little bit with the help of Venezuela.

This makes no sense in an eminently agricultural and poor country, where many products are imported to meet the needs of the population that could be produced right here.

I have seen documentaries from Japan, where the inhabitants sow on the roofs of the buildings which become large intensive gardens for the consumption of the residents. I have also been told that in Australia they sow on the walls, and there is an important development of permaculture, another way of relating to the earth, taking care of it and taking advantage of its benefits. These are not poor countries like Cuba.

Therefore we, with serious economic problems, have given ourselves the luxury for years of turning our back to the earth. It is enough to travel to the provinces to notice the amount of uncultivated land, abandoned or delivered to the marabou bush weed.

In these difficult times, which may become even more difficult, where food is expensive or scarce, it would be very good idea and above all very healthy one, to think seriously about how to obtain these products at home. Besides guaranteeing the food of all, it would alleviate the tensions and stress that Cubans suffer every day trying to put something on the table.

Miguel Arias

Miguel Arias Sánchez: I was born in Regla in 1949. That’s where I went to elementary and high school. Afterwards I took courses to be a teacher and did that for several years. I did my military service and as soon as I got out I studied formally to be a teacher graduating at the University of Havana. I taught in classrooms for nearly 20 years. I had the opportunity to travel and see another reality. I returned and am currently doing different self-employed activities.

Miguel Arias has 54 posts and counting. See all posts by Miguel Arias

24 thoughts on “Cuba’s Abundant Land and Food Shortages

  • Whatever happened in the past, the fact is much land in Cuba seems to be wasted. I drove the whole length of the island last year (when i fell in love with Cuba), and was struck by just how very much land there is. There is a LOT of potential farmland in Cuba, and the climate is perfect to grow a great many things.
    About 6 years ago, I traveled thru China, and out in the country, you see vegetable gardens EVERYWHERE. And people out working in them. Everywhere you see this; I think it is just in their culture. Maybe they have community gardens or something.
    Cuba should not be spending hard currency on importing any fruits or vegetables. That seems crazy.
    If anything, they should be exporting those things.
    But, back to the gardens: Maybe there is a stigma to ‘being a farmer’ or something, but up here in the USA, it is considered very hip to have your own little garden! Then you can impress your guests while making that dish, by running outside and picking some herbs from your own little plant and topping the salad with them!
    …and they all will be very impressed..! “Well, look at that!”
    But Everywhere there is some dirt, large or small, there could be a fruit tree or a vegetable garden, and that includes people’s porches. Even just a few pots on the porch can grow some vegetables or herbs for your kitchen. And it is fun!
    It is wonderful, (and empowering) to pick a ripe tomato from your own plant and pop it in your mouth!

  • OK Nick, so I read your comment about the UK not being a “banana republic” – you used the term, I did not! What I did was to comment upon fruit production in Cuba prior to and following the revolution. For some vague reason -evident only to yourself, you persisted in endeavoring to criticize my comment for not referring to the “overseer”. As that was an obvious reference to the then owners and investors in the fruit producing businesses belonging to another country, I drew the comparison to the British car industry being similarly owned and managed by foreign “overseers”.
    So just similarly, read my comment carefully.

  • Ayyy,,hoy si me quedé en blanco ,,,con tantos comentarios tan rebuscados y sofisticados,,sobre la producción agrícola de Cuba y la exportación de frutas y q la culpa siempre la tiene EU,,,Quienes son los q gobiernan hoy en Cuba,,donde están los celebros de esos militares q son los dueños de las tierras en Cuba,,?,,porque no cultivan las tierras y le dan alimentos al pueblo?…No es interés del gobierno Castro- Comunista de q el pueblo tenga comida en la mesa,,parece q es más fácil dominar a un pueblo hambriento…Es todo.

  • You just don’t get it do you Mr MacD ?
    Or to put it another way, you will always refuse to admit when you are caught out.
    I have lost count of the amount of times that I have stated my opinion regarding the Cuba’s malfunctioning agricultural policies.
    I blame the U.S for all manner of things, but I would challenge you to produce one single example of me blaming the USA for Cuba’s post Revolutionary agricultural policies.
    I have also lost count of the amount of times that you have been caught out putting a spin on historical facts in forlorn attempts to back up your blunt political viewpoints.
    Perhaps you may wish to read the following very carefully:
    There is nothing within the structure or ownership of UK car production which makes the U.K. even slightly resemble a ‘banana republic’.

  • Your determination to dispute fact illustrates your need to promote your view that the bad ol’ USA is the cause of the incompetence demonstrated by the Castro regime. The obvious need Nick is self-evident to any reader. All this silly blarney in which you are persisting is because I in response to Noel Lynch gave a brief factual answer.
    My comment regarding your “overseers” in the UK is at least as relevant as all your silly persistence, UK production and export of cars is a consequence of the foreign management I listed – so how can it be mentioned without mentioning them? Would failing to do so be “historical revisionism”? What bunkum you insist upon pursuing. Just look back and re-read it! All because of a fact that you cannot dispute but don’t like to accept, coupled with the urge to denigrate.

  • Stating that Cuba was an exporter of fruit prior to the Revolution without mentioning that it was one of the USA’s banana republics amounts to historical revisionism. (It is the equivalence of stating that China used to export a lot of opium without mentioning the British.)
    Historical Revisionism – used to back up inflexible and dogmatic political viewpoints.
    Trying to make bizarre and irrelevant comparisons with the motor industry in the U.K. does not get you off the hook.

  • So Nick, the next time you speak of British car production (only one of many UK industries so governed), do remember to add that its “overseers” are Japanese, Chinese, German and American, Britain merely supplies the labour.
    When talking of cotton, remember to add that it was the UK that supported slavery in several countries and the exploitation of Indians and Egyptians by manufacturing cotton products in Lancashire.
    When talking of religion, always remember to add that the Bishop of Bristol “owned” eighty slaves.
    I guess it is for you to consider whether those facts make England a ‘banana republic’!
    Maybe you ought to consider UK practices and history before constantly criticizing the US. Your expectation that any fact stated should include a mass of additional information is really nonsensical. If as you so claim you “absolutely agree with Noel Lynch” how do you explain the deficiencies of the Castro communist system which has resulted in 32% of previously good productive land reverting to bush? Or does that waste of good land in a world of food shortages (I am not going to detail the numerous reasons for that shortage) not concern you? Are you indifferent to others hunger?

  • You stick to your guns Mr MacD.
    I absolutely agree with Noel Lynch. I have stated on countless occasions that post-Revolutionary agricultural policy has been poor.
    But you introduce the fact (and it is indeed a fact) that fruit was exported from Cuba prior to the Revolution but omit the fact that to a large extent Cuba was a U.S. run ‘banana republic’.
    That’s like saying that the USA was a big producer and exporter of cotton back in the day, but not mentioning slavery.

  • I am accustomed Nick to your endeavors to denigrate and dispute fact. So are you saying that Cuba did not export fruit?
    Are cars made in Britain British cars, even although the companies manufacturing them are Japanese, Chinese, German and American. Ishould explain that for many (including the Oxford English Dictionary) the use of the term American refers to the United States of America.

    It is indisputable that high volumes of fruit were produced and exported by Cuba prior to the revolution. Your distortion by describing that as “semi-fact” is simply silly mimicking Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and nonsensical – not unusual coming from your pen.
    I do not deny that my comment reflects the inability of the Castro regime to even maintain existing markets, let alone expand them. I responded to the sensible observation made by Noel Lynch, what is your response to him? I look forward to reading it!

  • Mr MacD,
    You state that prior to the Revolution Cuba was a major exporter of fruit in order to back up your political viewpoints which are frequently aired here.
    I don’t have a problem with your political viewpoints. They have a certain degree of validity.
    But there are facts, non-facts and semi-facts.
    Your statement regarding the historic export of fruit from Cuba is a classic example of the semi-fact. You include the portion of the facts which backs up your political viewpoints but omit the portion of the facts which would not aid your political viewpoints.
    Fruit was exported from Cuba prior to the Revolution? Yes it was Mr MacD.
    But these exports were carried out by Cuba’s overseer.
    This is the portion of the facts which you quite deliberately and quite specifically omit as it does not chime with the political point which you are pushing forward.
    There’s no big deal in using selective facts to forward one’s political viewpoints.
    The only big deal is if, when challenged, you try to deny that you are doing this.

  • Prior to the revolution of 1959, Cuba was a major exporter of fruit. That is fact!
    Cuba still has a minute export of citrus from plantations established prior to 1959 but now like much of Cuba’s agriculture failing from neglect and mismanagement, in collaboration with an Israeli company in Tel Aviv.
    Your constant endeavors to smear Nick are rather stupid. If one were to state that India became a major exporter of tea, would one of necessity have to explain that that was a consequence of British management? Should one have to add that the best run tea plantation in India was by Malayalam a British owned company that initially made money through rubber production in Malaya? Would failing to do so infer “kow tow” to the British Raj? Subversion indeed! Baloney Nick!
    Hope you can recall my article upon fellow travelers and incidentally the USA did endeavor to presume propriety over its northern frontier – look up your pristine obviously unread schoolbooks Nick -with all due respect.

  • Mr MacD, with all due respect, your comment fails to mention the blindingly obvious.
    We can all agree that Cuba, in this day and age is not getting appropriate value from the potential of it’s natural rescources.
    But stating that Cuba was a major exporter of fruit prior to to the Revolution without mentioning who was actually running that export business is wilfull subversion of historical fact.
    You should know better than to try and pull that one…….
    But then again perhaps you prefer to kow tow to the USA when it assumes proprietary over it’s hinterland or ‘backyard’ ?
    How the f would you feel if the USAbtried to presume proprietary over its northern frontier ??

  • Noel, prior to the revolution, Cuba was the largest sugar producer in the world and in addition to sugar, was a major exporter of fruit. Some 32% of the good agricultural land in Cuba is reverting to bush. Many of those who visit Cuba and come from democratic societies cannot comprehend how communism has destroyed production rather than enhanced it. Cuba is the equivalent of an open-air greenhouse, but imports canned tomatoes, canned fruit and sugar production is down to 15% of production thirty years ago.

  • i have just returned from Cuba & travelled to the south, the centre and west of the island. I was surprised at how much land is left idle to grow scrub. I have seen oxen being used to till the land, but within a couple of Km. I have seen new chinese tractors being used as public transport. This did not make sense to me. I come from an agricultural country, Ireland, only one crop of corn or vegetables can be grown here each year, I am told that in Cuba, several could be grown. This beautiful country should be able to export food, in my opinion.

  • I have had similar conversations with the owner of my preferred Casa Particular in La Habana. I believe Cubans who can afford to buy their own vegetables believe that house vegetable gardens are beneath their station and those Cubans who struggle to buy their vegetables believe that home gardens are too expensive or difficult to maintain. Either way…fewer home vegetable gardens.

  • One thing that no-one has mentioned is the preferred diet in Cuba.
    I have known Cubans who are very keen on fruit and vegetables but the majority seem to prefer a diet which would only really include a tiny side salad at most.
    Rice and beans is obviously the mainstay. But after that the preferred diet can be a bit lacking in healthy foods. I know Cubans who will argue that ice cream is a healthy and sustaining foodstuff.
    The author is absolutely correct regarding Cuba’s naturally fertile soil.
    The fact that so much lies unproductive is 100% the fault of the government’s centralised agricultural policy. Cuba could be food self sufficient (including all those plates of rice and beans). For this to happen there would need to be dramatic changes in policy.

  • The access to anything for farming of any kind in Cuba are limited by the government. The socialist government controls everything. If people start using more and more land for farming anything they grow will be taken from them. Cuba is an underdeveloped country because of its form of government. It was at one time one of the richest countries in the Americas, but that ended in 1959.


  • It is very interesting Nan Black, that discussion about forms of urban agriculture in Cuba in HT are virtually always confined to horticulture. in reality, the urban production of animal protein is much more significant, but not I understand appropriate for description or discussion. There may not be a tomato plant on every terrace, but there is a pig and other livestock in most backyards.

  • Excellent!!!

  • When I travel to Cuba, I am always impressed that almost every home, which has the space, has a garden of decorative plants. Also many terraces are decorated with decorative plants in containers of one sort or another. I rarely see a vegetable garden or a tomato being grown in a container. I am a horticulturist and the lack of personal gardens has always puzzled me. I always photograph gardens when I see them. The climate of Cuba begs for year round cultivation of gardens. Saving seeds from tomatoes and peppers you buy is very easy to do. And container gardening is simple. Put the seed in the pot of soil, water, and provide sun. Then eat the pepper or tomato you have grown with your own hands. I asked a casa particular owner why they didn’t grow tomatoes or cucumbers on their balcony. Her answer shocked me. She said it was too much work. I am a single, frugal person and always grow a garden. The money I save on buying produce certainly helps out with my household budget. When I hear of shortages in Cuba, I always think of the acres and acres that could be under cultivation. And dream of a tomato plant on every terrace.

  • The article makes a statement that raises a very significant question. Miguel Arias states about Cuba that:
    “It is not a country that has large industries.”
    The obvious question is why?
    Socialist governments may nationalize industries and businesses created by the private sector – usually as a consequence of individual initiatives, but those governments are incapable as of themselves, of creating new businesses.
    The combination of the Cuban constitution and laws, do not merely inhibit the individual initiatives necessary to create new businesses and industries, but oppose doing so.
    China and Vietnam suffered similar constipated 19th century Marxist thinking but eventually introduced capitalism resulting in the development of new businesses and industries.
    Set people free to pursue their individual ideas and energies and commercial development ensues.
    Cuba has a reservoir of untapped resources including those individual ideas and initiatives, unused labour and sound agricultural land going to waste.
    Yes, investment by other countries would be necessary, but that too is inhibited by the ridiculous demand that the State controls the wages paid to employees, leading almost inevitably to accusations of “corruption” when business owners make additional payments to key employees.
    The obvious frustration reflected by Miguel Arias is commonplace in Cuba and understandably so, for the people are powerless to change regime policies.
    Cuba will remain an “underdeveloped” country as long as Castro policies control.

  • Miguel, a nice article as usual. Your observations that other wealthier, more developed countries are doing more to make use of vacant lots, empty fields, or rooftops–for food production–brought up some observations from similar things in the US.
    I work on many ‘sustainable’ projects here in the US, and one thing that troubles me about some of them is how much they cost. In some cases, projects gets lots of publicity for being ‘sustainable’ when in fact the costs to achieve that alleged sustainability are higher than most people can possibly afford. Whether those are roof-top gardens to ‘green’ or cool the city, or city food gardens, highly engineered landscapes designed to filter water and keep lakes/rivers cleaner…and sometimes even mostly just for aesthetics. They are all good things, but it is harder to call them sustainable, in my opinion, as they become more and more engineered and expensive.
    To me, one important requirement of sustainability is that it should eventually be affordable by some metric. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Of course growing simple food plots in empty spaces would seem to be worthwhile regardless, and also it should be a fairly simple and cheap thing to do. As you point out, especially in a place such as Cuba–fertile, frost-free, etc.
    Whether or not a government should do these things has become a big question in the polarized US. If the government wants to run all enterprise, as in Cuba, then of course it has more responsibility to provide for the people. Here in the US–in the private sector, in a capitalist society–if a project’s revenue over time can’t keep up with the costs of the project, the project will eventually fail. A company will look at the numbers and decide to stop losing money. People will eventually only do what is required of them, if it causes them to lose money.
    In the US, with our system of government and our capitalist society, some government projects may continue even if they operate at a loss. They may be subsidized because it is generally agreed that the greater good outweighs whatever costs would arise if we didn’t do that greater-good thing.
    But, again here in the US, some may criticize any government-funded project that doesn’t keep up with its own expenses–taking a sort of business approach to government.
    Overall, the sustainability industry here in the US has become so big and expensive that many sustainability projects I work with are beyond the scope of what most people, or companies, can afford. They may get tax breaks for doing some things, but only big companies can usually afford to do these projects. Getting back to the simplest form that you refer to–food plots to alleviate hunger–it does seem those ought to be a good example of how to keep things simple. I only wish that people did not have to go hungry in order to realize this.

  • Very true. If Cuba could produce more food on it’s own land the hard currency currently expended to import food would be freed up to bring in merchandise to alleviate shortages or for capital investment.

    This is a necessary step. It must be done.

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