A Ground Level Look at Cuba’s Farm Policy

Land for those who work it…

Fernando Ravsberg*

The agrarian bureaucracy maintains itself on the backs of those who work the land. Photo: Raquel Perez.

HAVANA TIMES – This week marks the anniversary of the signing into law of Cuba’s Agrarian Reform, which transformed the life of tens of thousands of peasant families who were subject to the cruelest forms of misery, as a 1957 survey of the Catholic University Group documented.

The farm workers were able to stop their constant traveling in search of work in the harvests, and they settled down on farms of their own, from which no one could ever again evict them. Their children had access to school and they themselves were taught how to read and write.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary government soon came to believe that agricultural collectivization was more in line with their ideology than individual plots. They pressured the farmers to annex their land onto the state farms or to the cooperatives, also controlled by the State.

The Soviet-style “koholz” was imposed on Cuba despite the poor results that they had exhibited in the European socialist countries. Mr. Ramón Labaut, my wife’s communist grandfather, gave up his lands with pleasure, but his son-in-law Narváez Arias decided to continue in the old style.

A few years ago we went up into the mountains and visited the farms; that of the grandfather has been swallowed by vines.  That of the Arias family, in contrast, produces so much coffee that they have built a nice house in town and he lives there in retirement while his children continue working the land.

Alejandro Robaina, the tobacco grower, was another of the rebellious farmers: he roundly refused to give up the lands that his father and his grandfather had planted. Decades later, Fidel Castro himself approached him to inquire how he had managed to achieve such yield and quality.

Mr. Robaina was a plain-spoken man, and responded by saying that if Cuba wanted to develop a good tobacco crop, the only way was to give the lands back to the farmers. And life has proven him right.

Most of the Cuban soil is very compact, so tractors are needed to turn it. Photo: Raquel Pérez

In the eighties, Fidel Castro counseled the French Communist Party leader George Marchais: “Don’t even think about socialized agriculture. Leave the small producers alone, don’t touch them.  If you do, say goodbye to your good wine, your good cheese and your excellent foie gras.” (1)

Nevertheless, for two more decades the Cuban leaders insisted uselessly on looking for new forms of collectivization that could surpass the productivity of the small farmer.  It wasn’t until 2008 that it was decided to put the land into the hands of the “guajiros” and others who, although not farmers or peasants, were willing to dedicate themselves to this way of life.

The bureaucracy set to work immediately: they prohibited them from constructing houses on the farm; they prohibited them from importing machinery; they attached exorbitant prices to the few tools that were available for sale; and they obligated them to distribute their products only through “Acopio”, the State network famous for its inefficiency.

Despite all the obstacles, the guajiros used machetes to clear the marabou brush weeds, raised production, and left the country wondering what they would in fact be capable of doing if only they were given freedom to decide, if they were sold agricultural inputs, and were allowed to buy trucks for distributing their products.

I met a retired functionary from the Ministry of Foreign Trade who had received a parcel of land on the outskirts of Havana and now raises pigs with tremendous success; he grows the food for his animals and cooks with biogas that comes from their waste matter.

Agriculture is tough work, but in Cuba it has a certain attraction. Small farmers not only have access to education and health benefits, but they have also become one of the more prosperous sectors of the population, a rarity in Latin America.

The life of the Cuban peasant changed radically when land was distributed to them in 1959. Photo: Raquel Pérez

At any rate, the lack of water and the erosion of the soil makes it difficult to imagine that local agriculture could ever supply all of the country’s necessities.  Even in 1959, with half of the current population, Cuba imported a large volume of food.

I asked a farmer one day if it were true that Cuban land will produce anything you plant on it. He smiled astutely and said: “Yes, if you’re referring to tropical products, and if you enrich it with fertilizers, and you fumigate with pesticides and if you apply herbicides and you install irrigation systems.”

Only with great difficulty could Cuba become the garden that the popular imagination dreams of, but neither does it have to continue being a land plagued with weeds with a productive yield much less than that of a half-century ago.

The land distribution has begun to bear its first fruits, but in order to advance more in this they will need to eliminate the foolish restrictions imposed by an inefficient agricultural bureaucracy which would be better off shrinking into non-existence, together with the agricultural model that engendered it.

If 53 years ago the Cuban peasant raised high the slogan of “Land for those who work it!”, today they should understand that this in itself is not enough: they also need resources, and above all the power of decision and participation in the design of agrarian policies.

(1)   From the book, “A hundred hours with Fidel,” by the author Ignacio Ramonet.

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original article published by BBC Mundo.


2 thoughts on “A Ground Level Look at Cuba’s Farm Policy

  • I get really amazed when I see people writing about the failures of castro regime along decades and never ask for a gov change but still with hope of a change for good within regime!!!!!…… how can people be so complacent with this regime that destroyed a whole country and still want to stay at power?????….. what makes people to believe castro regime wants to do other than keep the power?????…… Castro is not a retarded, he knew and knows that all steps he took and takes in economy led and will lead to economical disaster, ……. what makes people to believe that after decades of farm cooperatives failure castro did not understand the system he chose was disastrous??????…… of course he knew, of course he deliberately produced the destruction of the wonderful agricultural industry we had, it was his goal, to produce artificial impoverishing in order to make Cubans dependable of the regime, in order to transform Cubans in political clients………. still some people believe the actual reforms in farming are designed to get a better farming closing the eyes to the fact that the taxes, fees and rules surrounding the “reform” are designed to keep the farming low and to avoid farmers get rich……. because richness is incompatible with subordination to any power, richness is the last thing castro regime wants, because richness means people independence and independence is something that can make people to want get rid this destructive regime.
    Following a little analysis I did using a study brought by Dear Comrade Landis in other www site one year ago. This study was brought with the pretention of demonstrating the bad life conditions of farmers before castro regime……. this analysis fits perfectly to dismantle the propaganda in this article about the supposed tribulations of farmers in pre castro era:

    Dear Landis, I found in your link the following:
    “The 1946 Cuban agricultural census showed great disparities in family income distribution by farm size. There were 62,500 families with land holdings from 1 to 10 hectares and a monthly income of 37.54 pesos. 147,189 families with holdings from 10 to 100 hectares with averaged income of 69.86 pesos per month in income. The group with farm holdings above 1,000 hectares contained only 894 families with an average monthly income of 3,313.69 pesos (Valdés Paz, p. 32). It is obvious that the status of agricultural workers was not any better. As a matter of fact, according to the ACU study, the average monthly income of agricultural workers in 1956-1957 was 45.72 pesos (Gastón et al., 1957, p. 60).”

    This paragraph shows the huge difference between salaries before castro and after castro. Before castro the rate exchange between pesos and dollar was 1 to 1…. Today is 1 to 28 !!!!!!!!
    Assuming that framers salaries today are same that farmers salaries before castro (what is not but today Cuban farmers salaries are much lower) we can easily calculate that the family with a monthly income of 37.54 before castro got at this time 37.54 dollars because the 1:1 exchange rate between pesos and dollars while same family gets today 1.34 dollar because the exchange rate 1:28 nowadays, the family that got 69.86 get today 2.45…… and ……..stop, because today we can’t find farmers in Cuba with more than 20 hectares!!!!!……. But even this disparity is not real because the average monthly salary in Cuba today is 20.33 dollars/month. So, those farmers in Cuba before 1959 that this study analyzes had a very good life compared with today farmers. One because they earned much more money then today and second because the inflation rate was much lower then ….. 1.8% then…. 28% today!!!!!
    Furthermore they could enjoy same hospitals Cubans can enjoy today but brand new and not like today destroyed ones, they could enjoy same free health care in public hospitals and they could send their children to free schools……. in spite of castro regime propaganda.

  • This is a magnificent post by Fernando Ravsberg. It illustrates one fundamental reality: socialism, workable socialism must be based on appreciation of, and retention off private productive property rights. Fernando illustrates this principle with regard to small farmers, but it is true also of the small urban entrepreneurial class and the broad mass of the proletariat.

    The proletariat must own significant industry and commerce directly through the cooperative corporation structure perfected and demonstrated by the Basque workers of northern Spain.

    It’s easy to see how socialism benefits from small plot agriculture in Cuba, but also in tiny, formerly poor countries like Denmark.

    If the Cuban top leadership will only understand that the agricultural bureaucracy that chokes the small farmers is an enemy of socialism, possibly even a covert agency of imperialism, then can quickly make Cuba self-sufficient in food production, and even begin again to export agricultural products.

    Small farmers must be given land of their own, government support, and the freedom to produce and sell according to market criteria and their own interests.

    Socialist state power, yes; state ownership and control, no.

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