Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — “We get off at kilometer 184,” we told the bus driver while he checked our luggage. “Not a problem,” he replied. “You’re headed for Las Cajas, then.” Two hours later, we traded the AC for a morning breeze, as our host spurred the horse on and we settled in for the unavoidably bumpy ride along the dirt road.
For three kilometers, at either side of the rock-laden path, we saw a succession of rectangular water deposits, connected to a complicated system of rudimentary canals. Some pools showed the green of newly-planted rice. Others were still patches of muddy water being stirred up by the large iron wheels of a tractor, especially designed for preparing this type of soil for crops.
Among the future and present rice fields, one can still see part of the original savanna, offering patches of grass to a handful of scrawny cows and the occasional horse. Our avid eyes soon fell upon a relentless enemy, as green as the crops that yield the grains so crucial to our survival. The marabou brush offers no food and it seems intent on staying in our fields for years to come.
As one enters Las Cajas, the first building one sees is the medical and nursing clinic. It is practically abandoned (no one’s lived there for the past five years, at least). A doctor makes sporadic visits to town, while the nurse lives in a nearby community, visiting the place regularly.
Beyond it, there’s the primary school, the State food store, a separate counter where one can buy an excellent, cold lemonade, at a spot where the regulars await the habitual omelet sandwiches or rissoles and (farmer’s habits die hard) open up a bottle of Cienfuegos-brand rum for new-comers. The bottle issues a sweet scent of sugarcane, low in alcohol.
A hundred meters away, we see the tower of the local aqueduct, holding enormous water tank. On the other side, next to the entrance, the ruins of what was once a social club: a large, one-story house that was once a recreational and cultural center. A roofed segment of the structure still stands and today functions as a place where fresh milk is delivered and transported out. The local economy is based on rice growing and cattle breeding.
We are close to the vast Havana-Matanzas plain, where summers are extremely warm and winters among the coldest registered in the country. The red soils here are very fertile. As a prairie, the place is a true gift to intensive agriculture, but the town is far from taking full advantage of the immensity of the terrain.
After the welcome, we head directly for the rice fields. In the summer, the transplantation of the Mota, rice plants crops that are re-sown for greater yield, begins. One of the planters explains the process:
“A month after the rice is planted, the Mota is extracted and transplanted. This is done twice a year. It’s one of the rare moments when you can make extra money on a daily basis, which is why you see groups of ten to twelve workers working in brigades.”
How much do they pay, and who pays?
“Private contractors who have the terrain ready for planting pay for this. They pay 100 pesos (US $5.00) for every furrow planted. A hectare holds 24 furrows and can produce anywhere from 50 to 60 100-pound yields. These are bought directly by the State, which pays 292 Cuban pesos (US $14.60) for each.”
It’s hard work. The planters walk into the flooded fields wearing only shorts. The expression “breaking one’s back” rings true here, for, to reap and plant the crops, they have to bend down and stick their arms elbow-deep into the water. It’s what they have to do if they want to make 200 pesos (per worker) at the end of the day.
Is this good business for those with land? Another worker, one of the most seasoned in the group, dispels my doubts:
“Generally speaking, it’s a way to survive, get by, but those who have many hectares of land can have two good harvests a year and earn quite a bit of money, but there’s few of those around here.”
The issue of cattle, milk and cheese remains to be discussed.
“True, that’s a whole other economy, but it doesn’t provide many work opportunities. You can almost get by working with the family and perhaps one or two helpers.”
How long does the Mota season last? What happens afterwards?
“A month, like I told you, twice a year. After that, it’s time to rough it, as we Cubans do!”