Land for those who work it…
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.
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.
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.