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Linking people to the land


Leonardo Benitez Martinez.
Linking people to the land
From state farms to co-operatives, cogs in the wheel to self-management...

We’ve slipped out of Havana in the half-light of dawn and now we’re thundering down the Autopista Nacional, the eight-lane river of concrete which runs south-east to Santa Clara and beyond. Traffic is light, very light. For the first half hour or so there are a few cyclists and twice an ox cart trudges along the verge. For the next 450 kilometres en route to Ciego de Avila we pass maybe a hundred trucks and buses. And once, memorably, the glassy-eyed head of a large cow severed at the neck and poised on a bloody smear at the roadside, a dozen metres in front of the mammoth old truck which must have hit it the previous evening. The carcass, in meat-short Cuba, has already disappeared.

Neighbours Pedro and Maria Gomez

I’m travelling with Minor Sinclair, a transplanted American who, with his wife Martha Thompson, works as the Oxfam Canada Field Director in Cuba. Oxfam is one of the few foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with a program in the country.

Cuba has been especially guarded in its relations with overseas donors. There are bilateral (government-to-government) programs and both the European Community and the UN Development Program are here. But foreign NGOs are rare. And the few that do operate are not allowed much of a profile. No squadrons of Land Rovers, no troupes of hired locals. Offices are frowned on. Martha and Minor work from their home.

We are on our way to visit some of the agricultural co-operatives Oxfam is helping support in the rich farmland around Ciego de Avila, a small city located about a third of the way down the island.

After the Revolution the Government launched a major land-reform effort, nationalizing all foreign-owned land and turning the big sugar plantations and cattle ranches into state farms. (Until recently, 80 per cent of Cuba’s farmland was in the form of large state farms.) The first agrarian reform law gave 26 hectares of land free to any farmer who wanted it and cemented the new government’s popularity in the countryside. More than 100,000 received deeds to their land. In 1963 private holdings were capped at 67 hectares – about a fifth of the land stayed in the hands of small-holders. Half of those remained as independent farmers while the other half were organized into co-operatives.

Some of these are formal co-operatives where farmers manage and work the land collectively (known as Co-operativas de Producción Agropecuaria or CPAs); others are credit and service co-ops where farmers operate independently but band together to buy inputs and share machinery (these are known as Co-operativas de Credito y Servicios or CCSs).

Unlike the Soviet Union, peasants in Cuba were not forced into collective agriculture. Co-operativization was encouraged and supported by the State – for example CPA members can get cheap credit for building materials to construct their own houses. But it was largely voluntary. And that’s the reason independent peasants and co-ops are the most efficient and productive farmers in Cuba today. Though they farm only 20 per cent of the total land it’s estimated that they produce 40 per cent of all food grown in the country.

Minor and I pay our first visit to the home of Leonardo Benitez Martinez. He’s President of the CCS in Mamonal, a rural community of 5,000 not far from Ciego de Avila. Oxfam has been helping to fund training sessions in organic farming. And they’ve also helped the CCS in Mamonal buy some new tires for their tractors.

As we approach Leonardo’s house family members scramble with embarrassment. There was a sudden rain shower before our arrival and several bags of rice which had been drying on the terrace were moved into the sitting room. Now the clouds have passed and chairs are hastily dragged outside.

Leonardo had a heart attack in 1987 and spent three months in hospital in Havana though you would never know it today. ‘I was there in the best hospital in the capital with the best doctors and all for free,’ Leonardo recalls. ‘That is one of the great things about our Revolution.’ A broad smile flickers across his face as he relaxes into his chair. Then he tells me about his farm. He grows mostly tomatoes on his 6.5 hectares but he also plants rice, corn and beans and various root crops for his own consumption. Like other farmers in the area his production declined steeply in the early 1990s when supplies dried up overnight.

‘In 1989, I was growing over 1,500 quintales (100 lb sacks) of tomatoes; in 1993 all we managed was 970 quintales. That was mainly due to a virus carried by white fly.’ Without pesticides, Leonardo’s harvest and his neighbours’ were devastated.

Leonardo leads me to his land, where workers up to their ankles in mud are planting tomato seedlings. ‘Mostly my family and I work the fields,’ he explains. ‘But we need to pay people to help at harvest or planting time. And sometimes we have work exchanges with other families.’ I remark on the oxen grazing at the far corner of his land and he tells me that during the ‘special period’ oxen have re-appeared across the island to take the place of tractors that sit idle due to lack of tires, spare parts and gasoline.

Pedro Gomez is also a CCS member and a neighbour of Leonardo’s. It’s now inky dark outside and we’re sitting in Pedro’s parlour. He is 61 years old and has a slight limp but he’s pleased to have visitors and keen to talk. The faint glow of a fluorescent light glances off a polished cement floor and exposes the traditional thatched roof above.

Pedro explains that he plants 27 hectares in tobacco, tomatoes, beans, yucca and rice. All co-op members have a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture and must sell a set portion of their crop to the State for a pre-determined price. His ‘plan’ (as the Government contract is called) is set in advance but there is not a lot of room for negotiation. ‘We get credit and inputs according to our assigned quote and the amount of land we plant,’ Pedro says. ‘We get paid 8 pesos per quintale within the quota and 12 pesos per quintale over the quota. But we can also sell our surplus on the open market if we choose.’

Part of the Government’s restructuring means slowly removing subsidies but it has to be done with care or farmers like Pedro will feel the pinch. Last year, he says, fertilizer was three pesos a bag. This year it’s nine pesos – less than a tenth of its real cost but a big jump for farmers being paid largely in pesos.

Unlike most of Latin America, Cuba never really had a strong campesino tradition. The foreign-dominated plantation culture meant that most peasants were seasonal farmworkers rather than small-holders. After the Revolution the giant state-farm sector built on that model. With the help of Soviet largesse Cuba developed a high-tech, energy-intensive agriculture. As long as the USSR continued to pump in money the state farms were moderately productive. But when the props were removed they were revealed for what they were – mammoth, inefficient sinkholes. Cuban planners had known this for years, but with such huge subsidies there was little incentive to do anything about it.

The problem was both economic and structural. Employees on the state farms are just that: workers, not farmers, and historically their wages have been among the lowest in the country. State-run industrial agriculture was highly centralized and rigidly hierarchical. Workers were divorced from the product of their labour and had no control over it. They had little material or spiritual incentive to be productive and they weren’t.

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In the early 1990s the Government introduced a program called ‘Linking People to the Land’ to shake up the lethargic state farms by establishing small work teams that could take responsibility for all aspects of farming a particular piece of land. Pay was directly linked to productivity.

Then in September 1993 the Government took the next step. State farms were dissolved altogether and workers encouraged to come together into Unidades Basicas de Producción Co-operativa (UBPCs). The formation of UBPCs is the biggest change in Cuban agriculture since the Revolution. Land is leased rent-free to former state-farm employees in a usufruct arrangement (it reverts back to the state if not used) and members inherit all state-owned tools, machinery and buildings. The UBPCs are similar to the older CPAs except they tend to be vastly larger. They are self-managed and financially independent – though what they grow is dictated by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Most state-owned land has now been turned into UBPCs: there are around 5,000 with more on the way. State farms now control only a quarter of all agricultural land – down from 80 per cent five years ago. There is no doubt this worker-managed co-operative model has boosted food production. However, the transition is by no means complete and there are problems – the main one is the centralized management legacy of the state farms themselves.

Nonetheless, the new self-management model seems to be paying off. Cutting state farms loose from the public purse has helped reduce the deficit from 33 per cent of the GDP to two per cent since 1993. Soon, instead of providing subsidies, the Government hopes it will be collecting taxes.

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