Cuba’s Idle Lands

Osmel Almaguer

Las-tierras-ociosasHAVANA TIMES — The world food crisis is getting worse every day. As a result of the irrationality of the capitalist system, vast expanses of land and other resources that could be used to feed millions of people are destined to fuel production, while food production outputs continue to dwindle more and more.

Needless to say, food distribution imbalances – a situation in which food is squandered in one corner of the planet, while countless people die of starvation in another – are a major part of this crisis, to say nothing of the impact that excessive industrialization is having on natural settings that have not yet been destroyed.

Faced with this situation, small, poor countries have no other alternative than to produce their food through their own efforts, without making large investments in production machinery. Cuba, whose government has recently been pursuing policies that point in this direction, is a case in point.

Ten or fifteen years ago, marabou plants covered a great percentage of the island’s cultivable lands. Agricultural production had dropped to the point of almost collapsing entirely (though Cuban news programs insisted otherwise).

The first campaign launched by Cuban authorities to revitalize the sector was an initiative to eradicate this plague, a thorn-covered shrub which propagates quickly across the land, particularly thanks to cow feces.

Almost immediately, the news began to report on farmlands that were “free of marabou”, with a view to prompting smallholders to follow in the footsteps of those who had attained such results.

Though plagued with large tenement buildings, Alamar, a peripheral neighborhood in Havana, is a semi-urban area with abundant green areas, and people have begun to avail themselves of these yet unoccupied, cultivable grounds, compelled by food shortages (or to set up what proves a relatively lucrative business).

I went out to buy some garlic and returned home with a small can of flimsy cloves which cost me a full fifteen pesos. A pound of black beans is often as expensive as twenty pesos. We can imagine, from this, the kind of figures that flash across the minds of these would-be farmers.

I, who live in the outskirts of Alamar, spent the first 33 years of my life denying my semi-rural condition. Many things have changed in me and my surroundings, however, encouraging me to embrace farm work for the first time…in a lot behind my house.

I have not, admittedly, been immune to financial motivations (some money to touch up my house, which hasn’t seen repair work in over 20 years, would not be bad at all). But, most of all, I am driven by a sense of communion with nature.

I don’t call it a farm. I call it “The Hill”. Its my small, private Zen garden, where I spend many happy hours, shielded from the deafening noise of cars and machines and the bitterness of people.

I work at a slow pace, not aiming at any material goals, but to enjoy the moment, grateful for this time of peace which allows us to create our own future, through our own efforts.


Osmel Almaguer:Until recently I would to identify myself as a poet, a cultural promoter and a university student. Now that my notions on poetry have changed slightly, that I got a new job, and that I have finished my studies, I’m forced to ask myself: Am I a different person? In our introductions, we usually mention our social status instead of looking within ourselves for those characteristics that define us as unique and special. The fact that I’m scared of spiders, that I’ve never learned to dance, that I get upset over the simplest things, that culminating moments excite me, that I’m a perfectionist, composed but impulsive, childish but antiquated: these are clues that lead to who I truly am.

6 thoughts on “Cuba’s Idle Lands

  • When in Cuba, I must seek out a food supply which might be a horse drawn cart offering some Yucca root, lettuce, tomatoes, or other locally produced food. The local tienda is government-run and does not show any understanding of customer service. I have seen five employees leaning on shelves, or walls while 20 customers are waiting for one cashier to work through the line. All this time, there is a second cash register with no person operating it.

    If shops were privatized, they would compete with each other for best price, freshest food and lowest price. When I visited another government tienda across the street, I found the clock I wished to purchase but the only person that could sell it to me was gone to lunch. Again four or five employees were lounging around chatting with each other and trying to not be bothered with customers. In Canada, a shop that gave such poor service would soon close because no customers would support such poor service. Yes, I see improvements in Cuba where more black market is turned into a free-enterprise business. But the country has a long way to go in efficient marketing.

  • It is the “irrationality” of the Castro regime that turned Cuba from a net exporter of food in to a country that depends on imports for 80% of it’s food.

    It was the “10 million tons zafra” that destroyed Cuba’s agriculture and the subsequent dogmatic mismanagement of a soviet subsidized mono-culture system that ended up with over 50% of Cuba’s arable land lying unused.

    It is the communist ideology that handed over 70% of the land to state farms that were 4 times less productive than the independent farmers.

    The Castro plan to “revitalize” the sector failed miserably as even after the handouts of land less food is being produced.
    Without an total overhaul of the system freeing Cuban farmers from state control, guaranteeing the property rights to protect investments, wholesale supply and distribution systems and adequate remuneration that rewards work and encourages investment Cuba agriculture is doomed to fail.

    Foreign run farms are the most productive in Cuba. Israel being a large investor by the way.

    Some historical background on Cuba’s staple food: rice:

    Rice is the staple of Cuban food. Cubans where no bread eaters. they ate
    “After WW2 imported rice was difficult to obrtain and costly, so Cuban
    farmers had an incentive to grow rice. In 1949 Cuba produced 10 percent of
    domestic consumption. In 1960, the year after Castro came to power, the
    Cuban rice harvest was 400,000 metric toms, making Cuba for the first time
    self-sufficient in rice. During the decade of the fifties, Cuban producers
    had successfully adopted the latest methods of rice farming employed in
    Louisiana and Texas. From the point of technological expertise, rice
    production outstripped that of any other branch of Cuban agriculture; and in
    terms of money value, rice became one of Cuba’s major crops.
    By 1962, with Cuban agriculture socialized, the rice yeld was reduced by
    50%. The same year, as has already been noted, the rationing of foodstuffs
    was introduced, with the rice ration set at 6 pounds per person per month.
    …. That lowered per capita consumption by two thirds… More over, for
    low-income Cubans, for whom rice formed amore substantial part of their
    diet, the reduction was even greater.”

    M. Halperin, Return to Havana, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 1994,

    A well functioning free market ensured that from a shortage in 1949 break
    even was achieved by 1960. Castro ruioned the inustry by 1962. In two years
    50% of the annual need in rice were no longer met.

    In 1966 the rice ration was again reduced by half to 3 ponds per person per
    month. that is down from 18 to 3 ponds since the start of the dictatorship.
    The reason was: the deal that Castro himself had made with China on the
    supply of rice fell through when Castro didn’t deliver the promised support
    in their “polemic” with the SU.
    (for details on the rice Crisis and the Cuba – China quarrel see: M.
    Halperin, Taming of Fidel Castro, Bereley: University of Calformnia Press,
    1981, p. 195-207.)

    “Thus in 1965, Cuban rice prooduction had dwindled to 50,000 tons…”
    M. Halperin, Return to Havana, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 1994,

    Note: a good refernce

    On sugar:
    I can recommend you this book:
    Marcelo Fernandez, Cuba y la économia Azucarera Mundial, Havana, 1989,.

    “Cuba”s response to economic prosperity has … been problematic. In each of
    the three world sugar booms since the early 60’s, Cuba has mishandled
    economic policies, over imported, and generated the foundations of a
    subsequent economic crisis.”
    Jorge I. Dominguez, “The Obstacles and Prospects for Improved US-Cuban
    relations,” in US-Cuban Relations in the 1990’s, ed. Jorge I. Dominguez ane
    Rafael Hernandez (Bouldern Colo. : Westview Press, 1989, 32.

    Castro abandoned all attempts at export substitution and export
    diversification in 1963. Castro thereby destroyed the food production in
    Cuba for prestige reasons: to achieve more sugar than Batista and to thereby
    dominate the sugar market.
    Idiotic megalomaniac goals that destroyed the Cuban food production.
    Cuba failed to even meet their required “planned” production to meet it’s
    obligations to the SU.Castro made Cuba more than ever dependent on one crop: sugar.The dependence on sugar never declined since the late 1950’s: over 75% of exports. Production rose from 5 to 7.5 million tons between the 70’s and 80’s
    Prices ranged between 10 and 4 cents per pound (excpet the peak in 1985 of
    Mercelo Fernandez said: “Expressed in their real value, the sugar prices[of
    the late 1980’s] are comparable with those of the decade of the 1930’s …
    that is to sa, the lowest prices of the century” (Hernandez, o.c., p.5)
    Halperin has a great image for the Cuban sugar economy: “Cuba’s sugar
    dependent econmy is on a treadmill: it has to produce more and more sugar to
    remain in the same place”. ( M. Halperin, o.c., p 100)

    also read.

    The disaster is now “irrevocable”
    Jul 4th 2002 | HAVANA
    From The Economist print edition
    A non-working system is enshrined forever

  • Early in your post you seem to imply that the “irrationality of capitalism” has somehow led to food shortages and the ensuing hunger. This is simply not true. On the contrary, because of capitalism, when demand for food has increased, the market has encouraged suppliers to increase production in like fashion. That’s how capitalism works. Most food shortages are, in fact, due to poor distribution systems or the lack of resources to purchase the available food. Planting more corn in Iowa for consumption instead of for use in ethanol production will not alleviate the hunger in the Sudan. In fact, at times too MUCH food has led to falling prices and farmers leaving the marketplace. Cuba’s food problem is not due to fuel production. It is certainly not due to that lack of available productive land or the necessary labor. In Cuba’s case, food shortage is due the Castro-style agricultural management. Still, I wish you well with your garden.

  • Yes good luck.I love to read your reality .

  • Me encanta siempre leerte ,espero que tengas muchos frutos ,y nunca es tarde para que aprendas a bailar.

  • As Voltaire wrote, “We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest.”
    An interesting column, but with one statistical quibble. The world food supply has been increasing steadily over the past century, and still does today. This is a result of the so-called agricultural revolution based on the mechanization of farming, the use of fertilizers & pesticides, and new high producing hybrid crops. Some scientists have raised alarms about the use pesticides and others worry about GMO crops. However, the total food output has increased enormously.

    The problem is there are also a lot more people to feed. The reason there are still people going hungry is more to do with problems in distribution.

    Still, good luck with your own garden.

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