By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES – I was recently at an assembly for members from the agricultural cooperative I belong to. Seeing so much of a “tug-of-war”, discussing silly problems that have been going on for years. I really wished for that comedy show to finally end. A Cuban cooperative is anything but a cooperative. I mean in the real sense of the word and this economic association.
In Cuba, many farmers are members of some type of cooperative that has legal status. However, cooperation is so unreal that you can’t even find it on a family farm that has been divided up. Nobody cooperates with anyone anymore or it’s very rare. For example, if a member has a tractor or a yoke of oxen, they charge the other member for their service just as they would if it were any regular person on the street, and they aren’t given priority. It all works like this, it’s our everyday reality.
In the case of tobacco farming, which is a lot more intense, when a farmer has to plant, make their drying barn or a simple farm shed to store tools and supplies, they can’t do it on their own normally, they need some extra help. They receive this help from other farmers, but they have to pay them according to the unofficial labor market, haggling prices and everything, which isn’t cooperation, nor is it the sense of belonging to something in common.
There used to be a real spirit of cooperation
According to what the more-experienced farmers here tell us, the community didn’t have a cooperative before the Revolution. However, there was a cooperative spirit that existed amongst them. It was the exact opposite of what is happening today, now that we are told that we have a cooperative. When a farmer had to break up the earth, he could count on any neighbor’s oxen and plows that weren’t being used to do the job, and for free. Even with their neighbor offering to help out.
Building a farm or drying barn was a community effort, not just the individual farmer’s. Relatives and neighbors would all go and do it for free. They expected a similar attitude when they needed it though, of course. It was even a party because, at day’s end, they would sit around with a stew and some liquor.
Even when I was a small boy in the ‘80s, I remember that this cooperative spirit endured among farmers. The vast majority have left us now, and this collaborative custom has been lost. This much-needed help was always around to plant tobacco. They would sow in turns, finishing off one farm and then moving on to the neighbor’s. There was no water pump or sprinklers; the water was carried from a stream in tanks. These loaded on carts pulled by oxen.
Many trips were needed to water the furrows. But there were always 4 or 5 farmers among the neighbors with their yokes, constantly bringing water. While women, older children and neighbors too, helped out with watering and planting.
In order for something to be considered a cooperative, it needs to meet some basic criteria:
- Members need to share common objectives.
- It must be a voluntary association.
- Cooperative spirit among all its members is a must.
- It needs to be an independent economic body.
- It should answer to its members’ interests above all else.
There isn’t a single agricultural cooperative in Cuba that fulfills all of these requirements, except for the first point. Belonging to a cooperative isn’t exactly something voluntary, it’s a practical need. No landowner can get a bank loan without being a member of a cooperative. Nor can they sign a tobacco planting contract with Tabacuba, or any other crop for that matter. They need to sign agreements with state-led agricultural companies, who offer tech packs.
A group of farmers can’t form a cooperative on their own either. These are run by the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MINAGRI) regional boards. They do this in coordination with the Communist Party’s farming organization (ANAP). There is an instruction manual about how it must work.
For example, a cooperative can’t decide how its leaders are elected. In cooperative regulations, there is a compulsory method outlined which is similar to elections for political positions. This ensures that the “masses don’t make a mistake” and choose a leader who isn’t to the ANAP and MINAGRI’s liking, who represent the Communist Party. I’m not going to get into this because it’s a long story, but it’s aberrant. As are many other regulations.
I believe that many things need to be done urgently for Cuban agriculture to progress. The sector is in crisis because of so much bureaucratic red tape and excessive state control. However, one of the most important things Cuba needs are real cooperatives, which are free from the State’s yoke. It’s the only way we will have less political blunders and greater productivity in our fields.