Cuban Agriculture Still Condemned to a Standstill

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Photo: Angel Yu

HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban countryside is in crisis. In spite of its vast potential and still being one of the country’s greatest treasures, it doesn’t yield what it should or can. The Communist government’s failed economic model prevents its development and efficiency, like a straitjacket.

In spite of receiving almost 2 million USD over the past 11 years, with huge investments in hydraulics and millions in resources being invested in the sector during Raul’s time in office, the country continues to depend greatly on food imports which our fertile land could produce itself.

Instead of production increasing, it is paralyzed or even falling; instead of there being better efficiency, which would translate into better yields and lower prices, the exact opposite is happening. Instead of markets filling up and finding ourselves with an opportunity to export, dependency on food imports is on the rise; and far from Cuban agriculture being the guarantee of “National Security”, like Raul would say time and time again, today’s economic crisis and lack of liquidity leaves us in a state of “National Insecurity”, because of food shortages.

We were always a predominantly agricultural country. Sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, bananas, citrus fruits, pineapples and livestock were our exportable products, even if it was just at one-off moments. And, there was another range of crops for national consumption or substenance such as corn, beans, cassava, malanga, sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, peanuts, tropical fruits and vegetables, that decorate our countryside.

Almost half of this country’s land was covered with sugar cane plantations up until the mid-’90s and then, suddenly, the government decided to destroy two thirds of the sugar industry, instead of revamping it. It would have been much more viable to let national and foreign enterprise to use a large part of this for energy conversion in Cuba. Via biomass and biofuel (ethanol), as sugar cane has huge potential in this respect.

But, as always, political decisions came before what would be convenient for the economy. Not to mention the highly-experienced and technically-skilled human capital, with centuries of experience, that was left redundant. The Cuban government ended up buying sugar from Colombia and France to meet the basic rations demand. And, because what remains of the sugar industry and agriculture has been completely neglected, we don’t even produce a million tons and yields are way below 50% of what’s feasible.

An industry with so much to offer still, was razed to the ground. And the land, which in megalomaniac plans would have so many things planted on them, ended up being taken over by the marabu bush weeds. Just like what happened with the 1959 agrarian reform and Marabu weeds took the place of landowners’ cattle and crops.

Coffee, bean, rice and corn production are in high demand in our national market and there is no objective reason why we can’t meet that demand and even produce more for export. The State’s centralized economic model is the only obstacle in our way, which corrupts with its bureaucracy, incompetence, corruption, limited autonomy and low sense of belonging to the the overall productive machine. Just like everything else in the economy.

There are many problems, but it’s worth mentioning a few:

  • Our farmers are forced into pseudo-cooperatives which work under state regulations. Far from being organizations to unite forces and work in the best interest of farmer members, they work as a body responsible for subjecting them to the state, increasing bureaucracy and reducing their incomes with more taxes. As farmers, landowners and lease-holders are responsible for 80% of agricultural production in Cuba today, it’s essential that a real and effective cooperative movement is encouraged so that the sector can make much-needed progress.
  • There are a million hectares of idle land in the country.
  • Yields are around 50% (and even less) than their real potential.
  • State trade via Acopio (Cuba’s State purchasing entity) has a legal right over 90%, and in some cases even 100%, of production, but it is an incompetent body, in collecting harvests, storing and distributing them, as well as in making payments.
  • The private sector (Self-employed) trades more than what is legally allowed (between double and triple I guess), thanks to the State’s inefficiency, but because they operate with limited conditions that border on crime, prices are high and no demands can be made, or work be done, to try and find a solution. Mainly because the government continues to bet on a state-led approach, Acopio, even though it has never worked properly.
  • Regardless of resources being allocated, which are sometimes enough to encourage production, there is no efficient outcome in production because state-run agricultural companies and cooperatives are intermediaries, and they are far too bureaucratic, slow and incompetent. Farmers work swamped with delays, unfulfilled promises, demands and excesses of government guidelines, which diminish their incomes or put them in debt.
  • Even though the private sector produces 80% of the total, this high percentage only represents 20% of what we consume (including tourism which is a very attractive market for agricultural development which isn’t being maximized on because of the same problems). The country imported 1.5 billion USD worth of food when it started Raul’s reforms in 2008 and from 2014-107, instead of falling, this has now increased to 2 billion USD. Today, this number might have fallen but only because we don’t have the financial resources to import, which our crisis of food shortages can attest to.
  • The problem of sacrificing large livestock stops production instead of protecting it, as well as being unfair to livestock farmers.
  • The supplies and technology market for farmers is abnormal and creates a black market in parallel which is founded upon products stolen from the State, which hikes up production prices and influences high consumer prices.
  • The excessive taxes that farmers have had to start paying this year will cause greater chaos in the next few years to come. The highest tax rate should be set at 30%, not the exaggerated 45% they’ve implemented. Those who produce the most can’t be demotivated, on the contrary.
  • The National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) is the only farming organization allowed. And just like every organization in Cuba’s pseudo-civil society, it follows the official line. It isn’t dedicated to defending farmers first and foremost, but to uphold state control over them.

It’s a very complex issue and has many aspects. Right now, the Ministry of Agriculture, alongside ANAP, is carrying out a study going from farmer to farmer, pressuring them to hand more over to the state, because of the crisis. The news we have now is that this year we will have less supplies for crops because of the crisis, but we have the “commitment to produce the same or more, because the country needs us to.”

This is undoubtedly a far worse off situation than previous years, even though we didn’t make any advances either. Only sporadic and unsustainable results that were satisfactory. Because while the government refuses to ammend its economic model, its deadweight of incompetence and dysfunctionality infecting every sector of our economy, Cuban farming will still be condemned to a standstill.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.

One thought on “Cuban Agriculture Still Condemned to a Standstill

  • It’s a shame that a country of this size & location in the Caribbean does not utilize the land it has. Such a waste of good land & the expertise of an agricultural community of farmers. There should & could be so much to offer for home & abroad.

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