Revolutionary Cuba, no stranger to big problems, now faces another major challenge. Introducing major economic reforms in June 2008, President Raul Castro centered his government’s proposals on changing agriculture. The results are anemic so far, reports Rebel Youth (Juventud Rebelde) correspondent Ricardo Ronquillo Bello.

Agricultural production fell 7.5 percent during the first half of 2010 compared to the first six months of 2009. Cuba’s sugar harvest was the lowest since 1905. Of 4.2 million acres of idle state land offered to individuals and cooperatives for long term private use – the centerpiece of Castro’s proposed reforms – only 2.5 million acres have been transferred, of which 46 percent are not yet in production.

The necessity for reform stemmed from arable land lying idle, 50 percent of the total, and the burden, which continues, of importing 80 percent of food consumed in Cuba. Annual food import costs approach $2.4 billion. Fallow land resulted largely from the government’s 2002 decision to downgrade the sugar industry.

Agricultural ministers have been replaced and food imports reduced. Food purchases in the United States fell from $710 million in 2008, to $528 million in 2009 and to $220 million during the first half of 2010.

Half the land put into new production is dedicated to cattle raising, 27 percent to food crops, and 7.7 percent to rice production. Removal of the tenacious marabu plant from fallow lands has proved time consuming. Transportation resources, seeds, credit, and technical advice are only available irregularly, despite efforts to remove bureaucratic impediments. Private farmers occupying 41 percent of Cuba’s arable land account now for 70 percent of the island’s domestic food production.

News reports suggest that hundreds of thousands of state workers programmed to lose jobs in the coming years will be directed toward agricultural work. Half of those taking over newly available lands are under 35 years of age.

Agriculture looms large in Cuba, even though 80 percent of the 11.3 million Cubans live in cities. But with expanded urban agriculture, farm workers and family members number four million. Twenty years ago, agriculture – the sugar industry included – provided 83 percent of Cuba’s export income. That figure is down now to 15 percent. In 2008 agriculture accounted for 20 percent of the island’s GDP.

The residue of a tormented past, including colonial dependency, slavery, and dependence upon monoculture exports, still impinge upon reform efforts. The present attempts follow struggle beginning 20 years ago to overcome disaster caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse when imports and GDP fell 80 percent and 35 percent respectively. Agriculture wilted for ten years. Organic farming, urban and sub-urban food production, release of state land to cooperatives, and institution of private farmer markets led to partial restoration

New difficulties include continuing drought and hurricanes in 2008 that destroyed farming infrastructure and wrought damage costing $10 billion. Reduced prices for nickel exports, diminishing yield from tourism, and falling remittances from Cubans living abroad have hit state and personal incomes. The U.S. economic blockade limits access to credit and hampers food sales to Cuba. Foreign vendors, many tied to U.S. corporations and subjected thereby to blockade restrictions, hold back on sales of new agricultural technologies, machinery, replacement parts, tools, and manufactured animal feed. Oxen, used as draft animals during the 1990’s, are returning now to Cuban farms.

Other nations besides Cuba have wrestled with agriculture. Tension often prevails between proponents of industrialized agriculture and advocates of small, often family- operated farms over issues of efficiency, profitability, and cultural and ethical values. In socialist countries, planning and implementation must encompass equitable food distribution and agriculture’s contribution to the larger national economy.

There is the cautionary tale of the Soviet Union whose last president noted that food production was “the most serious problem facing our nation today.” Soon thereafter U. S. economist Joseph Medley suggested, however, that legitimate criticism, “tells us nothing of the magnitude of the goals set, nor of the results achieved.

Paraphrasing U.S. writer and farmer Wendell Berry, Ronquillo Bello concludes: “No matter that our lives are so urban, our bodies live because of agriculture. We come from the land and will return there … We exist through farming as much as we exist in our own bodies.” “Our country [too] comes from the land,” he explains. “We have to exist from agriculture as much as we exist in our own bodies.”




W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.