Cuban Agriculture: Increased Production vs. Improved Management

By Fernando Ravsberg

Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz
Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz


HAVANA TIMES — Cuban Vice-President Jose R. Machado Ventura is going around the island calling on farmers to increase production in order to meet the needs of the population and the tourism industry. He insists that the secret to this lies in making better use of the land.

However, researcher and producer Fernando Funes claims that 50% of harvests are lost because of poor collection mechanisms, a shortage of storage facilities, lack of capacity in terms of processing these products, inadequate transportation systems and terrible distribution schemes.

This Cuban engineer, who obtained his PhD in Holland, adds that Cuba should actually “devote greater efforts to ensuring what it produces isn’t lost.” This task isn’t in the hands of farmers but of the bureaucracy in Havana that controls them.

While working on his farm, Funes explains that “producing more in these circumstances means farmers wasting energies and losing morale, for even the most materialistic of the lot aren’t moved exclusively by profit and suffer when they see that what they’ve grown is ruined.”

What Cuba actually needs aren’t tours around the countryside and asking country folk to produce more. It needs farmers touring government offices and demanding that bureaucrats ensure efficiency in terms of collecting, storing and distributing harvests.

Farmer Alejandro Robaina gave Fidel Castro the key to improving tobacco harvests. Unfortunately, agriculture authorities seldom listen to farmers. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz.
Farmer Alejandro Robaina gave Fidel Castro the key to improving tobacco harvests. Unfortunately, agriculture authorities seldom listen to farmers. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz.

The way Fidel Castro solved this problem in the tobacco industry was skirting this bureaucracy. He visited the tobacco field of farmer Alejandro Robaina – the grandson, son and grandfather of tobacco growers – and asked him what could be done.

“I had a conversation with Fidel. He spoke to me of cooperatives and State farms and we had a heated argument. He took my advice,” Robaina recalled. Today, Cuba produces US $428,000,000 in cigars every year – it’s the only agricultural sector that works.

Instead of doing this, some want to “experiment” by resurrecting Acopio, the State collection and distribution system. They speak of new impetus for this system, even though it was chiefly responsible for the loss of entire harvests and shortages throughout the island.

High food prices are bringing pressure to bear on government authorities, but the solution is not likely to be found bringing back the dead. A prosperous and sustainable socialist system cannot be built the methods of the old, unproductive model.

There are also new social actors on stage. The many land leases offered by the government brought many urban residents to the countryside and this yielded some notable results, even though agriculture authorities do not seem to have noticed.

These urban farmers are bringing new visions to the countryside, applying novel cultivation techniques, using renewable sources of energy and avoiding middlemen by building direct bridges between producers and consumers. It’s a virtuous cycle that has proven to work.

Some time ago, I visited one of these farmers, of a retired foreign trade official. Today, he breeds pigs, produces natural gas using manure and irrigates his fields with the excess water. With the food that isn’t eaten by the pigs, he feeds chickens.

A former Ministry of Agriculture official is today at the helm of a farming cooperative which Cubans humorously refer to as the “Mint Cartel,” because it produces and distributes a key ingredient used in Cuba’s legendary cocktail, the mojito, throughout the capital.

Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz. Miguel Salcines got fed up with Ministry of Agriculture’s “theories” and set up a suburban cooperative on empty lots of land. It was born during the economic crisis and is today known as the “Mint Cartel.”
Miguel Salcines got fed up with Ministry of Agriculture’s “theories” and set up a suburban cooperative on empty lots of land. It was born during the economic crisis and is today known as the “Mint Cartel.”  Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Before the “cartel,” came into being, the Bodeguita del Medio bar and restaurant had trouble finding the mint. The waiters still remember how it arrived once a week in poor condition, even though an agreement between the minister of agriculture and minister of tourism had been signed.

Workers at the “cartel” use biological insecticides they create. They also employ natural barriers, surrounding the crops with plants that prove “tastier” to plagues. They charge the state for feeding a number of cows and avail themselves of the manure to fertilize their lands.

While Cuban agriculture continues to lose about half its harvests, Fernando Funes’ farm has losses below 10%. In all cases, one of the keys to success is a direct relationship with the market, without State or private middlemen that hinder distribution or bring prices up.

Information on what customers want and the quantities they’re able to buy allows them to grow the right amount of crops. And distributing the products themselves spares them the State’s inefficiency and the greed of middlemen, seeking profits of around 1000%.

The bureaucracy makes a habit of “confusing” farmers with legal terms, but urban peasants know their rights and have all of the needed permits: to transport food into town, to sell directly to customers and even to serve food on their farms.

Most farmers, however, continue to be bound hand and foot. Current reforms have only liberated the market’s speculative forces, when the productive forces of the countryside need to be liberated. Asking farmers to work harder won’t solve anything.

What the agricultural sector needs aren’t slogans or failed recipes. It needs a model adapted to reality, one that will free those who produce and make them prosperous. Ultimately, it will always be better for a farmer to grow rich than for a speculator or bureaucrat to do so.

2 thoughts on “Cuban Agriculture: Increased Production vs. Improved Management

  • Markets need not be the solution to distribution problems. As early as the 1970s Stafford Beer proposed cybernetic solutions to the problem in Allende’s Chile. Barring the absence of infrastructure, there is no reason why cybernetics could not be used to make distribution transparent. In the developed capitalist countries such mechanisms are common place. Think tracking your postal deliveries online. Allowing online tracking of distribution by farmers and consumers would make distribution accountable and thus efficient.

  • Archeologists have found evidence of trading, including the transport of material over hundreds of miles, dating back many thousands of years. I have wonderful delicate arrowheads made from volcanic glass — you have strong bows made from wood not available to me. Let’s swap, and we’re both better off. You take home more arrowheads than you can use personally, and you can in turn trade them for other things, as i can with surplus bows. And on it goes, encouraging people to make more and better bows, arrowheads, and the things they get swapped for.

    But imagine if such trading had been under the control of a Central Regulating Authority, dictating how many arrowheads had to be made, how many bows, what the rate of exchange of arrowheads for bows would be …

    We would still be living in the stone age. On the other hand, the Central Planners and Regulators would be on to a good thing.

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