Cuba: Small Farmers and Office Workers

Fernando Ravsberg*

A Cuban farmer hard at work. (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — It’s understandable that communists try to promote public property over private property – that’s the essence of their ideology.

However it’s also true that the manuals on Marxism say that practice is the criterion of truth.

Can the Cuban state continuing making efforts to save some state-run farms, though stubborn reality shows that these represent the most unproductive agricultural model on the island, even reflected by the official statistics?

Practice tells us that after the distribution of land to campesinos, agricultural production grew steadily, reaching an almost 10 percent increase in the first half of 2012. During that same period, the government’s potato harvest plummeted.

Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez justified the losses, starting first by pointing to the usual culprit — the weather — and continuing by blaming the lack of organizational foresight, phytosanitary problems, irrigation, the misapplication of machinery, soil and water testing, and the training of workers.

That was a surprising wealth of unexpectedness, disorganization and inefficiency for a ministry with more than one million employees, and one that is managed by people who proclaim their adherence to the “planned economy” as an economic model.

In any case, a portion of the 11,000 tons of potatoes that disappeared can be found around every farmers market. Of course one has to pay much more to speculators who hoard these and then resell them.

But the Ministry of Agriculture is dedicated to “assessing the causes of failure” and to analyzing its errors. This would be like the Civil Defense System spending more time assessing the damage during a hurricane than protecting the citizens.

And even with all this analyzing they don’t still understand what’s happening. Publicly they confess that they don’t understand why “some producers exceed 27 tons per hectare while others cannot even reach 15, though their plots are right next to each other.”

The revelation of what’s behind such mysteries of Cuban agriculture could be aided by three steps: office workers leaving the air-conditioning of those offices, getting their shoes a little muddy and — above all — going up to the farmers to listen to what they think.

I remember that Alejandro Robaina — one of the best cigar producers in Cuba — told me that there’s a piece of land on his farm that doesn’t produce good tobacco, but the government technicians always pressured him to plant it.

Each agronomist who came along insisted on cultivating there, but he explained to them that it was a waste of time “because my grandfather and my father had already put it to the test.” He never managed to convince them, but nor could they force him to plant it because the property was his, not state-owned.

A friend recalls that decades ago a group of Soviet agronomists concluded that it was necessary to change the working methods used by farmers in the province of Guantanamo. They advocated digging deeper with their plows and not letting the water runoff and be wasted.

Further studies found out that this action brought out the salt from the earth, with the aggravating circumstance that the water couldn’t drain it away because it was contained. If they had listened to the guajiros (small farmers) perhaps now they wouldn’t have such serious problems with salinity in the region.

They only give the campesinos directives and impose prohibitions, setting prices and adopting “administrative measures against the violators.” Interestingly, they don’t talk about sanctions against the senior managers within the ministry who were unable to lead correctly.

But certainly most Cubans agree with the minister of Agriculture when he says: “We have no right to repeat the mistakes of the potato harvest. There’s still a need for greater integration of design and control.”

The trouble is that every year after they fail, they come up with some slogan similar to that one. True, there’s no right to repeat mistakes when it comes to food for people, but the first ones who should believe this are the office workers who manage the farmers.

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.


6 thoughts on “Cuba: Small Farmers and Office Workers

  • In common with children and immature adults, ‘Moses’ is dumbfounded at the prospect of having to deny himself something for the sake of the overall good – saving fossil fuel, supporting local farmers, improving health. Promoting immaturity, of course, is the mother’s milk of capitalism, claiming “we only give people what they want” when they promote junk food, sensationalist journalism and cheap, throwaway merchandise that quickly ends up in garbage dumps.

    Exotic food is attractive but not required for our health and happiness. They crowd out good local foods. Suddenly, due to the local food movement, produce items and varieties that used to be grown are now back – what are commonly called ‘heirlooms’. Exotics are fine as a treat but marketing would have you buy them as a local product, not out of reason but for reasons of profit.

    ‘Moses’ asks if a farmer who is “smart and hard-working” should be denied selling his produce further a field. Re-phrasing the question, should a farmer be denied burning excess fuel to truck his produce further, produce that must either be picked green or genetically engineered to stand up to traveling longer distances – choices that inevitably affect how it tastes – trucking that threatens the livelihood of farmers in the trucked-in area?

    Again, ‘Moses’ model is a capitalist model – the only thing that matters is to empower so-called “smart and hard-working” people at the expense of everything and everyone else, claiming that it is good for everyone. The current crisis of capitalism serves as the best example that this isn’t so. And we haven’t even dealt with the effect so-called “smart and hard-working” folks can have on family and community life when their acquisitive obsessions become all consuming.

    ‘Moses’ final flight of fancy is to urge Cuba to embrace market capitalism in order to achieve “highest and best use” – this in the face of reality in capitalist countries. He may be unaware, or chooses to ignore, that 30% of food grown in wealthy capitalist countries is wasted – thrown out – either to prop up market prices or the result of excessive consumer buying. Scientists tell us that with the 30% added capacity we could sustain the expected added billions in population for the foreseeable future with what we are currently producing. Under the circumstances, “highest and best use” is hardly the appropriate terms to use. Dumb and irrational work better, terms that fit capitalism like a glove, a system that claims selfishness and competition will lead to a better world.

  • Lawrence, I like kiwi and mango. There are no kiwi or mango farms within 100 miles of my house. What should I do, deny myself? The tomatoes grown within 100 miles of my house are truly among the best-grown tomatoes in the world. Should a farmer who is smart and hard-working enough to grow enough tomatoes to sell within and beyond your contrived 100 mile radius be denied his livelihood? Cuba needs to abandon their current agricultual model altogether and let the market decide. Highest and best use should be objective.

  • Grady, do you really believe it is that simple? Where will the individual farmers get the tractors, combines and the parts to repair them when they break down, which they invariably do more often in tropical climates.With what money? Where will the farmers buy the fuel to power the heavy equipment and for the trucks necessary to transport these products to market? With what money? What about the seed? The fertilizer? Other than the hotels partially owned by foreigners, and the State itself, who else in Cuba has the money to buy truckloads of potatoes, bananas, boniato, or whatever at one time. Are you suggesting these individual farmers sell their products retail, one jaba at a time? You bookbound socialists have all these great theories but in real life, it is a load of fertilizer. There’s an idea…..

  • Excellent post, Lawrence W. If our nascent US cooperative republic movement can achieve a socialist cooperative republic via the fall 2020 national elections, as we hope, the wisdom of the “local food movement” can be applied to the entire country, and an enormous transformation can begin to occur.

  • The comparison with agricultural problems in Canada and the US is instructional – different systems and different problems converging on the same solutions. Through mass agro-farming and the exploitation of farm workers in overseas companies – the average distance food travels to reach plates here and in the US is 1,500 miles – prices are low and supplies are plentiful here. But a realization is growing that the food is not healthy – laced with pesticides and hormones – grown to travel long distances, not to taste good, and enormously reliant on petroleum, both for transportation and fertilization.

    I work for the local food movement in Canada, with a guideline of eating only what was raised or grown within 100 miles of where you live. It believes in small, local farming and knowing personally who grew or raised your food. It is a growing movement with customers who recognize that buying food at the lowest possible price should come second to the goal of only putting into your body the most healthy, tasty products possible. The local farmers love to farm ethically. Many farmers gave up farming when they could not get a sustainable price for their efforts as large supermarket chains insisted on buying at the lowest prices.

    When I was in Cuba recently, I could find eggs in the local market that were supplied by local farmers and other eggs that arrived in volume by truck at a large weekly market. The locally supplied eggs had thicker shells and were much tastier than the trucked-in eggs. I was told that the latter came from large farms run by Canadians!

    Cuba has large state-run farms run by people focused on production levels, not good farming. Canada and the US have large agro-businesses and marketing conglomerates focused on profit, not good farming. In both cases, small, local farming seems to be the best solution for everyone.

  • All the PCC needs to do, in order to rebuild Cuban agriculture–and the whole economy–is value the peasantry and small bourgeoisie generally, and the role private property rights can play, under socialist state power and macro planning, for workable, dynamic socialism.

    Farmers need private property rights and land ownership, and an unfettered produce market, to prosper–and to make the whole country prosperous.

    The same sort of legal rights and actual ownership is needed by cooperative associates in industry and commerce. The state should silently own only about a third of such industry and commerce for its revenues.

    But the PCC has got to correct its theory and its program, as well as its whole bureaucratic mindset.

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