By Yusimi Rodriguez, photos: Bill Hackwell
HAVANA TIMES, August 16 – On the last Thursday of every month, issues of the country’s history and present are discussed and debated. These gatherings are held at the Cuban Film Institute Center (ICAIC) known as “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which is located in the corner of 23rd and 12th streets in Havana’s Vedado district. On Thursday, July 29, I attended one of these “Last Thursday Forums” for the first time.
First, a panel of specialists on the issue at hand gives a presentation, and then people in the audience pose questions or express their opinions. After this input the panelists respond. Though this forum is not promoted in the mass media, nor is it censored.
Attending regularly are intellectuals, writers and artists, as well as anyone who wants to participate, since admission is free. The topic of the forum that I attended was “The Harvest of Ten Million.”
That discussion took its name from the Cuban sugarcane harvest of 1970, when an effort was made to produce ten million tons of sugar. This goal was not reached and the harvest was a failure, though at the same time it was the biggest harvest in the history of our country – but at what price?
Discussing the failed campaign
The panel consisted of planner Selma Diaz; economist Julio Diaz Vazquez, a member of the National Institute of Land Reform in 1970; and the sociologist Juan Valdes Paz. They covered the carrying out the harvest and how cane was sowed anywhere and everywhere, even to the point of moving cattle off grazing land to devote more fields to planting, which strongly effected the agricultural and livestock industries.
Due to the resource allocation problems in sugar refineries, the shortage of qualified personnel and limited time to make the necessary adjustments, some government ministers even wound up managing refineries. When it came time to actually cut the cane, it was necessary to mobilize the whole country. Though lacking experience in this work, workers from all industries, students and even the members of the armed forces were called on to assist in a campaign that distorted the Cuban economy.
One person in the audience who spoke in the debate was 14 years old in 1970, but even at that age they went to cut cane. Their inexperience in this type of work led to getting cut with a machete. Nonetheless, this was not their bone of contention; instead, it was the fact that —as opposed to the point of view of historians, economists or politicians— there doesn’t exist a work that describes the harvest of 1970 from the perspective of those who directly experienced and suffered it.
The train in which this person traveled to cut cane was routed along a preferential railroad line so they arrived at their destination in a little more than one day. To return home, a bunch of oranges was the provision for each one of those passengers on the train, which —no longer having a preferred route— took three days to reach Havana; the bags of oranges lasted one. They returned tired, hungry and without knowing the outcome of the harvest, the result of their effort.
Even if the ten million tons had been reached, would that have compensated all the effort and the sacrifice, or all the resources that were devoted to the harvest? Before attending this forum, I had heard that during those months classes had closed and even the night schools were shut down. The rest of the industries in the country were practically paralyzed. People who participated in the debate and had lived during that time only confirmed these facts to me.
Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of the greatest military leaders in history, conquered the Romans in the battle of Asculum; however he lost 3,505 soldiers against the less than 6,000 Romans who fell. When his was congratulated for his victory he responded, “With another such victory I shall be ruined.” The harvest of 1970 didn’t end up being a pyrrhic victory – it was worse. It was a pyrrhic defeat because the ten million tons were not reached and the cost was that the harvest lasted longer than normal, land was left devastated, and agriculture and cattle breeding suffered damage from which the country has never totally recovered.
Revelations around the fateful decision
How is it possible that the ten million ton goal was not achieved despite the massive labor force that was dedicated to cutting cane, despite the enthusiasm with which the Cuban people took on that task, and their unbridled confidence that it was possible to achieve it?
I’ve known people who worked in the harvest and they’ve told me that when they participated they were convinced that they were building the economic future of the country. It was the moment for each to make a sacrifice for a prosperous tomorrow in which shortages would never again exist. Now I find that naïve, though I look at them with respect. I’m sure that if it had been possible to produce the ten million tons of sugar, if it had only depended on the effort of the Cuban people, it would have been accomplished.
Many cried when it was announced that the ten million would not be achieved. At that moment, the immense majority of people ignored the fact that our leader, Commander-in-chief Fidel Castro, had been alerted that the goal of ten million was impossible. Over the years I heard rumors and speculation of this in different versions: “An engineer warned him,” “a French economist alerted him,” “the Russians told him.”
On Thursday, July 29, the “Last Thursday Forum” was focused on learning the truth about this matter. Any other information would be interesting, especially from the mouths of those who were involved in the harvest. But what I wanted to know was if the country’s leadership —more specifically, our leader— knew ahead of time that it was not possible to reach the ten million ton figure.
Selma Diaz related that she had been part of the group in charge of analyzing the capacity of the country’s sugar refineries to achieve a harvest of ten million tons. That analysis began starting with the mid-1960s. When that commission met with our commander-in-chief, they told him that it was only possible to produce 8.5 million tons. He said that it should be nine, and when they met again he increased the figure to ten.
Consequences of being closed to criticism
Rumors are hardly ever groundless. I’m sure that all of us present at 23rd & 12th had heard that the person responsible for establishing that impossible goal had been Fidel Castro, but we wanted to hear it from the experts. We needed to hear it said aloud in an official setting, or at least in one that up until then had not been censored. A secret in hushed voices is not the same thing as a truth stated in public. The novelty was not the information in and of itself, but in the fact of hearing it directly, in public and from the mouth of someone who was involved in the event.
I told this to a friend at the beginning of last week. I was dying to tell it to someone and I did it with the air of someone who had a scoop, because although she must have heard the same rumors as me all her life, she hadn’t attended the forum.
My friend is 59. I found out her exact age that day and also that her father had worked in the sugar industry for many years prior to the victory of the Revolution. In 1970 he had enough experience to know that it was impossible to produce ten million tons of sugar. As the true revolutionary he was, he tried to alert people in a meeting at his workplace that this goal could not be achieved. That cost him his membership card in the Communist Party of Cuba.
As his daughter, my friend told me that he didn’t have to wait long for time to prove him right. Though he had been recognized as being among a “national vanguard worker” for many years (thanks to which my friend got to go to a house at the Varadero beach resort every year), they didn’t return her father’s Party card to him until he was much older.
I don’t think I would have accepted it. I wouldn’t want to be member of an organization that I couldn’t question if it were acting in a way that appeared to be wrong and in which I couldn’t express an opinion that contradicted the official line.
Moreover, that is not only a situation of the past. Recently, Esteban Morales was “separated” from the Communist Party of Cuba for publishing a letter with criticisms and matters that were not received well by the leadership of the Party. While they ceaselessly repeat that “Revolution is to change everything that must be changed,” according to the “Concept of Revolution” voiced by comrade Fidel Castro in 2000, they continue applying the same policies.
Continued counterproductive whitewashing
For me, what was most paradoxical on Thursday, July 29, was the cover of the official Granma newspaper that day. For months, the newspaper has been publishing fragments of old speeches by the Commander-in-chief with the clear intention of demonstrating to us the present validity of his ideas from those times. If now it’s necessary to eliminate many jobs across the country, for example, they show us on the cover of Granma an excerpt of a speech by the Commandant from thirty or forty years ago criticizing excessive staffing (despite the fact that this has existed in our country ever since that time).
Reading these excerpts in Granma, you have to ask yourself how it’s possible that we’ve faced and continued to face so many problems about which our leader has warned us in the past. It turns out that our official press continues to highlight the role of the leader and recalls his successes. His errors though are orphaned and enunciated in passive voice (“it was not foreseen,” “it was not planned,” “it was not understood”) or wrapped in an “us,” which makes us all responsible for the errors of a single person.
The fragment that I read in the Thursday July 29 edition of Granma in fact recalled his speech from September 3, 1970, from the same year as the harvest that constituted such a tremendous failure.
But in the excerpt, Fidel called people’s attention to a minority of people who effectively exploited the general public because they didn’t work yet enjoyed public resources. “When the inhuman factors disappear that previously forced people to work, the alternative of this is the maximum development of collective consciousness and the employment of a coercive force of working society against those who aspire to live parasitically off of others… “
I wonder what that use of coercive force would consist of exactly. But I especially wonder whether the ten million tons of sugar would have been achieved if those “parasites” had been incorporated in cutting sugar cane? Were they the ones responsible for the failure of the harvest and the country’s subsequent economic problems? In that harvest, the refineries couldn’t process all of the cane that was cut. But while people’s attention was diverted toward those people who didn’t work, they didn’t have time to reflect on the errors made by the highest leadership of the country.