Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — In some of my past articles, I’ve commented on the fact that out of the need to survive I’ve turned to agricultural work, more specifically, to tobacco farming. I decided to do this when my first wife was pregnant, about to give birth to my eldest princess, Ana Claudia, seven years ago. I’m going to tell you a little bit about my experiences as a farmer, to show you just how badly things in this country work.
I used to work at the Provincial Center of Medical Genetics in Holguin as a specialist in cytogenetic studies and I earned just over the equivalent of $20 dollars per month. In any normal country, it would be absolutely stupid to leave a stable job just as you’re about to become a father; however, here, carrying on working would have been a great act of irresponsibility, unless of course I didn’t have any other choice.
The most humble layettes and a crib cost me like 4,000 regular pesos (around $160 USD) back then, 8 times my entire salary. As a responsible father, I took my leave and created a little business renting out CDs; thinking about growing tobacco on a small plot of land that my father had given me, in the middle term.
“Getting into” tobacco farming took me four years because it’s not enough to just want to do it. There is only one state monopoly company called Cubatabaco and you can only legally sow this precious plant through them. The Mayari valley is classified as one of the best-suited lands for this kind of farming and my suburban neighborhood, Guayabo, has a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Out of the entire region, it’s where there are the most experienced farmers and people come from all over searching to employ this extremely valuable workforce.
Ironically, the Cubatobaco company didn’t start by growing here, but in another place where workers are few, nobody knows anything about tobacco and plots of land were handed out in usufruct to people who had no experience in growing tobacco. All of the resources were directed to a place where they had the least amount of opportunities to be efficient and effective. The result was catastrophic and it was only five or six years later, with some readjustments, and debts that continue to drag into the future, that the situation began to change.
In my community, the struggle to grow was done without improved conditions, without access to irrigation which runs underneath and benefits the rest of the valley, without irrigation systems, without priority investment programs, but the results were better than the rest. It wasn’t to help out the State or its inefficient company, but out of necessity, in order to access the best prices of this important product. Out of the ten tapaderos (where the layers for exporting are produced), there are only three here in Guayabo and it was these three that had satisfactory results, the rest became indebted.
Up until last year, investments still hadn’t begun to be made; however I managed to get on the list a year beforehand with a subterfuge. I built my tobacco curing house the best I could on my own, with my stress levels through the roof because of its insecurity over legalities. In the end, In three days I received all of the resources that I’d asked for over three months and which they refused to give me. The TV came to report my story and incredibly enough I was further ahead than those who had been a priority and they chose me. Then everything came about naturally.
Before this, in order for them to sell me a small quantity of nails needed for the contruction, I had to wait in a line for four hours and beg the person responsible for authorizing them, who told me I had to come another day with a scowl. Then I had to wait out the same line, and another one to do my invoice and then find a storekeeper who distributed them. That was in the happy chance scenario that they authorized them, because they almost nearly always say that you can’t. With all of the fuss on TV, a manager came to my house and asked me what I needed. He sent a car out to get the nails and got the invoice clerk to sign my piece of paper straight away.
The contracts included clauses that said that they should provide us with supplies, but then they tell you that they arrived incomplete and that’s that. In Cuba, a contract is just a mere formality, it isn’t worth anything, and filing a complaint is a waste of time. For example, the company is responsible for handing out seedlings on time and correctly, of the best quality. They’ve never managed to do this. That’s the reason why the last harvest, which should have ended on January 31st, reached this date with 50% less planted and had to be extended until March. This affected the production and there were problems with quality because of environmental stains on the leaves and a lot of tobacco was affected because it had to be cured during the Spring rains.
Cubatabaco finally met its goals without problems and they got just as much money out of affected tobacco as they did the good tobacco, because they converted it into cigarettes and this multiplies their value 50 or 60 times over. However, we farmers lost around 40% of the price and even though we complained, it was useless: instead of getting compensation, we were labeled “troublemakers”.
Another example: since July 3rd, I’ve been asking for them to plow my land and by August 15th, they still hadn’t come. I had to have it done privately which costs 2.5 times more than it does to do it with the government, but they came quickly. I kept on insisting for the second plowing but they still haven’t done it. This week, I will hire someone privately because I aim to sow my tobacco in October and I’m running out of time, however, I will keep on insisting as an experiment to see if they come after the harvest has ended.
These are just some examples to illustrate just how badly things work here in Cuba, even in a prioritized sector such as that of tobacco, one of the country’s leading exports. While it is true that they pay better than they do for other agricultural produce, they don’t let the majority of the growers enjoy real solvency either. The State is the one who earns more and we farmers don’t have access to the financial data. They’re secret.
This system is tedious and inefficient and I’m sure that it kills many of us with stress. It’s a shame that we don’t have the financial information! And there are still people who ask why this doesn’t work; I assure you this way of operating is of no use, it doesn’t work and it never will.