IF IT WERE JUST THE MARABÚ . . .
CUBA'S AGRICULTURE 2009-10
"We face the imperative of making our land produce more . . . the needed
structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced," Raúl
Castro famously proclaimed on 26 July 2007, a few days short of a year
after provisionally taking over the reins of Cuba's government from his
incapacitated older brother. Nine months later, now formally confirmed
in power by the National Assembly, he told a plenary meeting of the
Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 28 April 2008 that
food production had to be their top concern as a matter of the highest
In countries otherwise so very diverse as the United States, Russia and
Nigeria, Germany, Iran and the Dominican Republic, Sweden, Brazil and
Honduras, the four years that Raúl Castro has de facto presided over
Cuba would constitute a full term of office, towards the end of which
supporters and opponents of an administration argue over its record
during a general election campaign. While Cuba's one-party regime
marches to the beat of a different drummer, its people – like people
across the world – respond to the thrice-daily call of their stomachs.
Cuba is no exception to the applicability of the time dimension in
politics and economics, and the passage of time is a necessary yardstick
for judging this government's effectiveness.
What brought the food situation to the fore of the government's agenda
were the ballooning cost of food imports and an alarming deterioration
of the food export-import balance pressing on the merchandise trade
balance, now that foreign exchange earnings from sugar exports no longer
offset outgoings for other agricultural products. Other countries also
felt the impact of sharply increased international commodity prices in
2007-08. Cuba's government, however, could not blame soulless world
markets alone if people did not have enough to eat. The downsizing of
the sugar industry – more demolition than restructuring – had engendered
hundreds of thousands of hectares of idle land, on which dense thickets
of marabú (Dichrostachys cinerea) bore highly visible evidence of the
state's mismanagement of the island's resources. Fifteen years or so
into the "Special Period in Time of Peace" that began with the end of
Soviet-bloc supports for the Cuban economy, the government was faced
with the specter of a return to the drop in food availabilities, if not
the nutritional deficits, experienced in the first half of the 1990s – a
double dip in current economic recession parlance.
So what has the government done in the farm sector in the four years of
Raúl Castro's stewardship?
• Debts amounting to tens of millions of pesos owed by state agencies to
cooperative and independent farmers have been paid. However, the
revelation that barely had the old debts been settled when new debts
began to accumulate (Varela Pérez, 2009a) undermined claims that the
deficiencies which allowed such arrears to arise had been eliminated
(cf. Hagelberg and Alvarez, 2007).
• A reorganization of the agriculture ministry begun in 2007 reportedly
resulted in the closure of 83 state enterprises and the transformation
of 473 loss-making units, with 7,316 workers transferred to other jobs.
Analysis of 17 enterprises selected in a second stage showed the
possibility of more than halving the number of employees in management.
Overall, the ministry counted some 89,000 "unproductive" workers in the
state sector – not including Basic Units of Cooperative Production
(UBPCs), undertakings that "after many ups and downs and ambiguities
have still not fulfilled the mission for which they were created"
(Varela Pérez, 2009b). More recently, agriculture minister Ulises
Rosales del Toro stated that more than 40,000 "indirect workers" in the
sector had to be relocated (Pérez Cabrera, 2010).
• Controls formerly exercised directly by the agriculture ministry from
Havana have been shifted down to municipal level. To what extent this
actually reduced the bureaucratic apparatus and made life easier for
producers is uncertain. The Cuban economist Armando Nova Gonzàlez
expressed doubt, arguing that the functions of government and of
business management were still being confused: while one structural
level had been eliminated, two had been created by introducing a chain
of service enterprises to supply production inputs. That was all very
well, but how were the producers to acquire the inputs? Through a
market, or, as hitherto, by central allocation, which for years had been
shown not to be the best way? (Martín González, 2009)
• Shops selling hand tools and supplies for convertible pesos (CUC) have
been opened in some municipalities. The degree to which this has created
direct access to production inputs has so far been limited by the small
number of such outlets and the range of goods on offer. Some fraction of
farmer income from produce sold to the state and otherwise is also
denominated in CUC. But for the acquisition of larger items and bulk
quantities, bank loans in that currency would have to become available
(Nova González, 2008).
• Sharply increased state procurement prices – some, notably for milk
and beef, to double and more their former level – have, by all accounts,
been an incentive to raise output.
But these measures did not amount to structural or conceptual changes,
though they could awaken hopes that those would come.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
At the end of the first four years of Raúl Castro's watch, the one
structural change worthy of the name in agriculture is the mass grant in
usufruct of idle state land, mainly to small farmers and landless
persons. Although these transfers are surrounded by conditions,
Decree-Law No. 259 of 10 July 2008 is deeply revisionist in concept
since it implies – more clearly than the conversion of state farms into
UBPCs in 1993 – the abandonment of the long-held doctrine of the
superiority of state or parastatal, large-scale, mechanized agriculture
reliant on wage labor, of which Fidel Castro had been the foremost
exponent in Cuba. Over the signature of Raúl Castro as President of the
Council of State, it was decreed that landless individuals could obtain
up to 13.42 hectares and existing landholders could bring their total
area up to 40.26 hectares under licenses valid for up to 10 years and
successively renewable for the same period. Existing state farms,
cooperatives and other legal entities could apply for the usufruct of an
unlimited area for 25 years, renewable for another 25 years.
No detailed statistics of operations under Decree-Law No. 259 seem to
have been published since mid-2009 (González, 2009), cited in Hagelberg
and Alvarez (2009). The information on land areas by type and tenancy in
the most recent yearbook of Cuba's National Office of Statistics stops
at 2007 (ONE, 2010, Table 9.1). Different global figures can be found in
media reports. Raúl Castro informed the National Assembly towards the
end of 2009 that around 920,000 hectares had been transferred to more
than 100,000 beneficiaries, which represented 54% of the total idle area
(Granma, 21 December 2009). This would put the magnitude of the total
idle area at the outset at 1.7 million hectares. Almost five months
later, Marino Murillo Jorge, minister of economy and planning, gave the
congress of the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños (ANAP), the
national association of small farmers, the same figure of 920,000
hectares as the land transferred under Decree-Law No. 259, adding that
around half of the areas so assigned remained idle or insufficiently
exploited (Granma, 17 May 2010).
From the second half of 2009 onwards, the reportorial focus in the
state-controlled mass media has shifted noticeably from implementation
of Decree-Law No. 259 to advancing a so-called Agricultura Suburbana
program. Raúl Castro gave the cue in a speech to the summer 2009 session
of the National Assembly (Granma, 3 August 2009):
Let us forget tractors and fuel in this program, even if we had them in
sufficient quantities; the concept is to execute it basically with oxen,
because it is about small farms, as a growing number of producers are
doing with excellent results. I have visited some and could verify that
they have transformed the land they are working into true gardens where
every inch of ground is used.
Raúl Castro entrusted this new initiative specifically to Adolfo
Rodríguez Nodals, the head of the National Group of Urban Agriculture
(since renamed National Group of Urban and Suburban Agriculture) in the
agriculture ministry. The group, he declared, "has obtained outstanding
results in urban agriculture, fruit of the exactingness and systemacity
expressed in the four controls that it carries out annually in all the
provinces and municipalities of the country" (Granma, 3 August 2009).
This suggests that Raúl Castro still prized centralized control over
operational functionality, evidently unconscious of the fact that it is
wholly unsuitable for the management of small-scale mixed farming.
While the idea of the Agricultura Suburbana plan may indeed have come
from the experience of the Agricultura Urbana program created in the
1990s (Rodríguez Castellón, 2003) and shares some of its policy
objectives and features, such as high labor intensity, the two schemes
are as distinct as town and country, horticulture and agriculture.
Agricultura Urbana rests, in the main, on patios (domestic gardens),
plots (empty lots planted to vegetables) and so-called organopónicos –
low-walled beds filled with soil and organic matter, with or without
drip irrigation, in the open air or in shade houses, their high-tech
name derived from hydroponic installations that could not be maintained
after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The system, now reportedly
embracing around 10,500 organopónicos alone and occupying more than
300,000 workers (Luben Pérez, 2010), no doubt contributes substantially
to the food supply and has other advantages. Equally, Rodríguez Nodals's
group undoubtedly fulfills some useful functions by providing advice and
facilitating access to supplies in other countries easily available.
Its face to the wider public, however, consists of tedious reports of
its quarterly inspections and the grades it bestows on its charges,
rather in the manner of an elementary school teacher (e.g. Varela Pérez,
In contrast, the basic structural model of Agricultura Suburbana is the
finca, a small farm, most often in private hands, located in an
eight-kilometer-deep ring between two and ten kilometers from urban
centers. The plan is being rolled out in stages stretching over five
years, some selected municipalities at a time. Its declared objective is
to source the food supply of population concentrations as far as
possible from nearby crop and livestock producers primarily reliant on
animal power for field work as well as transport. Around the city of
Camagüey, the test ground for the project, it is ultimately to comprise
some 1,400 units with a total area of roughly 65,000 hectares, 80% of
which is agricultural land, the greater part devoted to cattle
(Hernández Porto, 2009; Carrobello, 2010; Frank, 2010). Introduced as an
experiment in 18 municipalities at the beginning of 2010, the program
would be progressively extended to some 600,000 hectares across the
whole country, according to ANAP president Orlando Lugo Fonte (Bosch, 2010).
The emphasis put on narrowing the distance beween producer and purchaser
– distributor, processor or final consumer, on employing animals in
place of internal combustion engines in field work and haulage, and on
using compost instead of inorganic fertilizers shows that the
Agricultura Suburbana program, like the government's other major
agricultural policy initiatives in the last 20 years from the creation
of the UBPCs to Decree-Law No. 259, is inspired above all by the need to
reduce Cuba's dependence on imports, both food and production inputs, at
a time of extreme economic stress. To go by the official propaganda,
were Agricultura Suburbana enterprises to be characterized by a logo, it
would have to feature a pair of oxen. Hence it is disconcerting to find
that Cuba's stock of draught oxen appears to have shrunk by a quarter
from 377,100 to 284,700 between 2004 and 2009, in contrast to a growing
equine population (ONE, 2010, Tables 9.15 and 9.24). If ONE's figures
are right, the question can reasonably be asked: do the policymakers in
Havana know what goes on down on the farm?
Regardless of whether it offers a perspective of more than a
semi-subsistence agriculture, the shortage of material resources to back
up the effort to return swathes of mostly marabú-infested land to
production under Decree-Law No. 259 favored the more measured approach
of the Agricultura Suburbana program. The authorities were admittedly
overwhelmed by the flood of requests for plots triggered by Decree-Law
No. 259 (Carrobello and Terrero, 2009a). Within barely more than a month
of opening the door to submissions in the autumn of 2008, some 69,000
applications were received – 98% of them from individuals and 79% of
these from persons without land – according to official figures (Nova
González, 2008). Another month of so later and the number of applicants
had swelled to some 117,000 (Carrobello and Terrero, 2009a). Was the
notorious Cuban dislike for agricultural work another myth? If a fan of
the Beatles, Raúl Castro may well have been reminded of the lyrics of
Eleanor Rigby: "All the lonely people / Where do they all come from? /
All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?" Declaring the
distribution of idle land in usufruct one of the great challenges for
the coming year, he rather optimistically told an interviewer on the
last day of 2008: "We have already put behind us the first, initial
obstacles we encountered because of atavistic bureaucratic habits"
(González Pérez, 2009).
In fact, many successful applicants found that what they had signed up
for was, as the trade union organ Trabajadores recalled later, hacer de
tripas, corazón – summon up the guts to root out the marabú, "most often
without the necessary tools and without a gram of herbicide, by sheer
spirit alone" (Rey Veitia et al, 2010). An investigation by a team of
Juventud Rebelde reporters in March 2009 unearthed multiple problems –
lack of hand tools, machinery and fuel, insufficient financial support,
uncertainty over whether even a shelter was permitted on the plot,
shortage of fencing wire, and bureaucracy – along with concern over the
technical unpreparedness of people new to farming (Pérez et al, 2009).
In rebuttal of purported exploitation of the issues by foreign news
agencies allegedly intent on defaming Cuba, Trabajadores sought to
dampen down expectations: "It would be a delusion to think . . . that
any agricultural process that begins with the request for the land could
bring significant productive results in only nine months . . . .
Bureaucracy? Yes, it is a process that implies steps and involves
various agencies" (González, 2009).
Yet similar complaints of shortages, delays, irregularities,
bureaucracy, and official incompetence have resurfaced again and again
(e.g. "Efectuado pleno . . .," 2009; Rey Veitia et al, 2010). The
persistent bureaucracy made the front page of Granma when farmers
informed José Ramón Machado Ventura, member of the Politburo and first
vice president of the councils of state and of ministers, at an ANAP
meeting in Havana, of the "diabolical" mechanisms holding back pigmeat
production in the metropolitan area (Varela Pérez, 2010e). And Juventud
Rebelde quoted an outstanding young farmer (Martín González, 2010):
For some time I have been supplying eggs to a school in the community.
Until now I have done it with the hens I have, but they have to be
replaced because they are getting old and don't produce. When I asked
for replacements, there was so much paperwork that I am still thinking
LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS
A bane in the lives of the Cuban people, an incompetent bureaucracy
constitutes a minefield for the country's leadership. In their efforts
to devise agricultural reforms, Cuba's policymakers labor under a big
informational handicap. The government is ill-served by its statistical
apparatus. A cardinal case in point is a monograph survey of land use,
released by the National Office of Statistics in May 2008, which put the
idle agricultural land at 1,232,800 hectares, equal to 18.6% of all
agricultural land, as of December 2007 (ONE, 2008). Presumably, this was
the figure that guided the framers of Decree-Law No. 259 of 10 July
2008. The number was repeated in ONE's statistical yearbooks for 2008
and 2009 (Table 9.1), published in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and is
still the most recent available from that source. However, as casually
revealed in Trabajadores, it appears to have been a gross
understatement: "A study of the idle state lands arrived at 1,691
thousand hectares" (González, 2009). The provenance of this study has
remained unidentified, as far as is known, but a figure in the order of
1.7 million hectares is now evidently the accepted magnitude of the idle
land area existent on the eve of Decree-Law No. 259.
Hagelberg and Alvarez (2009) underlined the scope for statistical
manipulation offered by a metric of land utilization that allows
inclusion of areas merely earmarked for a crop, as officially employed
in Cuba in respect of sugarcane. Carrobello and Terrero (2009a)
subsequently pointed to another possibility – there may have been no
second study, merely a reclassification of categories that moved the
goalposts: "But if we add [to the figure of 1,232,800 hectares] the
pastures of doubtful utility, 55% of the agricultural area was not
cultivated." Agricultural statistics everywhere must, by the nature of
things, be granted a margin of error and should not be interpreted too
closely. But this is a discrepancy of a different order. In a matter as
sensitive as idle land, pollution of the statistical process by
political or ideological considerations cannot be excluded. A
century-old practice of maintaining grassland reserves in sugar
plantations to expand the cane area when profitable to do so moreover
conjures up an image of turf wars between the agriculture and sugar
However, ONE publications also contain numerous infelicities hard to
ascribe to political contamination. For instance, the most recent ONE
statistical yearbooks (ONE, 2009 and 2010) report tonnages of sugarcane
processed in each season since 2002/03 (Table 11.3) greater than those
produced for delivery to the mills in the respective season (Table 9.4).
Though perhaps not on a par with the biblical miracle of the loaves and
fishes, the magnification amounts to as much as 900,000 metric tons in
2002/03 (4.1%) and 800,000 tons in 2006/07 (6.7%). Examination of
earlier editions of the yearbook indicates that this inconsistency began
in 2002/03, the first crop following the restructuring of the industry.
The technical indicators displayed in Table 11.3 – cane milled, sugar
produced, yield and polarization – are a farrago of incongruities and
plain error. Unusually, ONE references these solecisms to the sugar
ministry, but that does not absolve it of responsibility since it is the
controller of the national system of statistics and guarantor of their
The question-mark hanging over ONE's integrity, competence and
professionalism notwithstanding, it is for outside analysts the only
source of the data necessary to present more than an anecdotal picture
of Cuban agricultural performance. Accurately weighing the impact of the
three major hurricanes and a tropical storm that occurred in 2008 –
described as the most destructive hurricane season in Cuba's recorded
history (Messina, 2009) – both on that year's output and regarding
after-effects, is an additional problem. Messina noted miscellaneous
reports of damage and losses in tree and arable crops, chicken and egg
production, and sugar factories. But the expected high levels of loss
were not reflected in the official data. Discussing the possible reasons
for the lighter than anticipated losses recorded, Messina thought the
most plausible explanation was that particularly in perennial and tree
crops the greater part of the harvest takes place in spring and was
largely completed before the hurricane season. The full impact of the
2008 weather events would therefore not become apparent until the spring
harvest of 2009 and would have to be taken into account in looking at
that year's figures.
Table 1 summarizes the official data on 2009 performance in the major
crop and livestock categories. The information for the non-state sector
is said to comprehend Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs),
Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPAs), Credits and Services
Cooperatives (CCSs), as well as dispersed private producers and
estimates for house patios and plots (ONE, 2010, Chapter 9,
Introduction). No breakdown into its components is provided in the
yearbook. Given the hybrid character of the UBPCs (Hagelberg and
Alvarez, 2009), their assignment to the non-state sector is debatable.
Interestingly, they are carried on a separate government register from
CPAs and CCSs (ONE, 2010, Chapter 4, "Institutional Organization,"
Methodological Notes). The estimates for patios and plots may also
include self-provisioning patches of state enterprises, UBPCs and CPAs;
but it is reasonable to suppose that the majority are in private hands.
In any event, it is understandably difficult to capture the full volume
of production in this category (Messina, 2009).
Table 1: Cuban food crop and livestock production, 2009
Production Change from Non-state share (%)
(1000 m.t.) 2008 (%) 2008 2009
Tubers and roots 1565.6 12.4 86.6 86.1
Bananas and plantains 670.4 –11.6 82.7 84.5
Horticultural crops 2548.8 4.5 82.1 80.4
Paddy rice 563.6 29.3 87.5 85.8
Corn 304.8 –6.4 93.4 91.8
Beans 110.8 14.0 97.0 94.5
Citrus fruits 418.0 6.7 37.9 38.8
Other fruits 748.0 1.3 92.2 90.8
Deliveries for slaughter, live weight
Beef 130.0 4.9 n.a. n.a.
Pigs 271.0 –7.2 41.0 44.8
Poultry meat 42.6 <0.5 77.8 77.9
Cow milk 600.3 10.0 86.4 86.4
Eggs 2426.8a 4.2 19.1 23.4
a Million units.
Sources: ONE, 2010, Tables 9.9, 9.11, 9.17, 9.18, 9.20, 9.22, 9.23.
Percentages calculated by the author, in the case of the non-state
shares of pigs delivered for slaughter, poultry meat and eggs,
indirectly by subtraction of the output of state enterprises from total
With the sole exception of rice, recorded 2009 outputs in the major crop
lines listed in Table 1 were below – in some cases, far below – their
levels in 2004, the first year shown in this edition of the yearbook.
Average yields per hectare (ONE, 2010, Table 9.12) were the lowest for
the six-year period 2004-2009 – except citrus fruits, in fourth place
from the best, higher than expected, and other fruits, in fifth place.
The record is better in livestock products, with only poultry meat not
reaching the 2004 figure. Except in egg and poultry meat production
(ONE, 2010, Tables 9.22 and 9.23), there are also clear signs of
improved efficiency, with average beef and pig live weights at slaughter
and milk yield per cow on rising trends, although still at very low
levels (ONE, 2010, Tables 9.17, 9.18 and 9.20).
Not so much legacy effects of the 2008 weather as badly distributed and
overall low rainfall the following year (ONE, 2010, Table 2.3) was
probably at least in part responsible for lackluster 2009 crop yields,
alongside of more secular factors. Messina (2009) surmised that citrus
output may still be affected by the bacterial citrus greening or
Huanglongbing disease, a conjecture confirmed by Varela Pérez (2010c).
Growing corn in Cuba is constrained by low yields and high production
costs. Some of the output swings in either direction are easily
traceable to official actions on prices and resource allocation. Potato
producers enjoyed priority in the supply of imported seed, fertilizer
and plant chemicals. Rice and beans are focal points of the policy of
import substitution. Milk production mirrors the effect of price
incentives and the increase in small-scale stock farming as a result of
Decree-Law No. 259, among other factors. On the other hand, the drop in
the delivery of pigs for slaughter suggests a classic hog cycle farmer
response of herd reduction after encountering marketing difficulties in
Unsurprisingly in an agriculture as exposed as Cuba's to governmental
intervention as well as the vagaries of the weather, there is scant
evidence of stabilization in domestic food production. A greatly
expanded area planted was the principal factor behind a comparatively
large tomato harvest, the main contributor to the smallish rise in the
horticultural crop total. Memories of losses due to the inability of
Acopio, the state procurement agency, and of processing plants to handle
last year's tomato crop are likely to be reflected in 2010, if the large
decreases in area planted and production in the first quarter, compared
with the same period in 2009 (ONE, Dirección de Agropecuario, 2010) are
a guide. Compared with the same period in 2009, the first three months
of 2010 saw bananas and plantains up 75.1%, but tubers and roots down
9.0%; horticultural crops down 25.1%; corn up 4.9%; beans down 30.5%;
paddy rice up 45.5%; citrus fruits down 21.7%; other fruits up 16.1%;
live weight beef and pig deliveries for slaughter down 3.2% and 3.3%
respectively; cow milk down 6.0%; and eggs down 1.1% (ONE, Dirección de
Agropecuario, 2010). Unless the 2010 rainy season breaks the severe
drought that began in late 2008, the government could easily find itself
again between the Scylla and Charybdis of a national food crisis or a
huge food import bill.
PRIVATE ENTERPRISE TO THE RESCUE OF THE STATE
If there is a clear message from the data, it is Cuba's dependence on
the non-state sector – and to a greatly increased extent on the truly
private part thereof – for the national food supply. The gradual
245,000-hectare (25%) expansion of the agricultural land owned or leased
by private operators that took place between 1989 and 2007 (Hagelberg
and Alvarez, 2009) was dwarfed by the structural change in land tenancy
within the space of a few months by the implementation of Decree-Law No.
This is too recent a development to have made an impact on the non-state
shares in output shown in Table 1, most of which were already of a high
order. However, it is reflected in the non-state shares in crop areas
harvested and in production – in seven out of eight categories higher in
2009 than in 2008 (Table 2).
Table 2: Non-sugar food crop areas harvested and in production, 2009
Area Change from Non-state share (%)
(1000 ha) 2008 (%) 2008 2009
Tubers and roots 246.0 25.4 87.8 90.8
Bananas and plantains 106.4 27.2 82.7 88.8
Horticultural crops 278.6 7.5 86.7 88.4
Paddy rice 215.8 38.7 88.0 87.6
Corn 204.0 57.9 91.2 95.5
Beans 150.6 58.0 94.9 96.3
Citrus fruits 47.9 5.0 54.0 62.2
Other fruits 91.7 10.4 85.6 88.1
Sources: ONE, 2010, Tables 9.6, 9.8. Percentages calculated by the author.
Overall, the total area harvested and in production of the crops listed
here grew by 293,353 hectares from 1,047,559 hectares in 2008 to
1,340,912 hectares in 2009 (ONE, 2010, Table 9.6), an increase of 28.0%.
The expansion of the non-state share was greater, both absolutely and
relatively, amounting to 296,571 hectares from 906,981 hectares in 2008
to 1,203,552 hectares (ONE, 2010, Table 9.8) – an increase of 32.7%.
Indicative of the impaired state of Cuba's agriculture, however, is that
while the 2009 areas of all these crops exceeded the previous year's,
those of bananas and plantains, horticultural crops and citrus fruits
had yet to recover their 2004 level. The total 2009 area of 1,340,912
hectares exceeded the corresponding figure for 2004 by just 114,279
hectares, or 9.3%.
Another measure of the enhanced role of the non-state sector – in this
case excluding UBPC affiliates who are considered ineligible to belong
to it – is the growth of the organization representing private farmers,
although there is a confusion of numbers. Towards the end of 2009, a
member of the national bureau of the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores
Pequeños was reported to the effect that nearly 57,000 new producers had
joined the organization and that a further 3,000 new entrants were
expected, with an equal growth in the membership of credits and services
cooperatives (Carrobello and Terrero, 2009b). The figure of some 60,000
new farmers was subsequently confirmed by Orlando Lugo Fonte, ANAP's
president (Hernández, 2010). But Lugo Fonte has also reportedly said
that the small farmer sector had grown by "more than 100,000 new
members" as a result of the transfer of idle lands under Decree-Law No.
259 ("Destacan potencial . . ., " 2010; Fernández, 2010). However, on
the eve of the 2010 ANAP congress he spoke of 362,440 members in CPAs
and CSSs, organized in 3,635 base units (Varela Pérez, 2010g). This
figure would be roughly consistent with the addition of 40,000 new
members to the 327,380 reported in 2005, which was the influx Lugo Fonte
had initially expected in 2009 to result from Decree-Law No. 259
(Hagelberg and Alvarez, 2009). While a large fraction of the new
producers undoubtedly had previous farming experience as agricultural
laborers or technicians – the personnel made redundant by the downsizing
of the sugar industry alone constituting a big pool, the fact that the
bulk of the applicants for land under Decree-Law No. 259 were previously
landless led Armando Nova, an academic and member of the Centro de
Estudios de la Economía Cubana, to speculate on "the beginning of a
process of 'repeasantization'" (Carrobello and Terrero, 2009b).
Recognition at the apex of Cuba's leadership that Decree-Law No. 259 had
created new economic and social "facts on the ground," with political
implications to be closely watched, would explain the participation of
first vice president and Politburo member José Ramón Machado Ventura in
ANAP regional meetings in preparation for the association's tenth
congress in the spring of 2010. In a conspicuous display of political
manpower, agriculture minister Ulises Rosales del Toro, Politburo member
and a vice president of the council of ministers, and ANAP president
Lugo Fonte, member of the Communist Party's central committee and of the
council of state, were regularly outranked at the presiding table of
these gatherings by the No. 2 in the national hierarchy.
REALITY – UP TO A POINT
In his speech to the National Assembly in July 2008, Raúl Castro himself
returned to his oft-quoted 1994 statement, near the nadir of Cuba's
fortunes following the collapse of central and east European communism,
that "beans are more important than cannons." Previously, in April, his
focus on food production together with the announcement that the long
overdue sixth Communist Party congress would be held towards the end of
2009 had ensured that the subject would continue to figure prominently
in the debates about Cuba's future that the regime had organized
throughout the country. As it turned out, the congress was again
postponed in July 2009 and the prospect then offered of a party
conference has also still to materialize. But whatever the authorities
gained from the debates in gauging the popular mood, identifying hot
spots, preparing the citizenry for cuts in public services and state
jobs, and providing a safety valve for discontent, there is one visible
result: the greatly increased reflection in the mass media of the raw
reality that people have long talked about in the street.
A notable example is the acknowledgment by the veteran chief spin-doctor
of the sugar and (more recently) of the agriculture ministries, Juan
Varela Pérez, of the defects of the UBPCs (Varela Pérez, 2009c):
Time showed that, not having been recognized as true cooperatives, many
remained halfway between the state farm and the CPA [collective farm
composed of former private holdings]. [Their members] were neither
cooperativists nor wholly agricultural workers; a limbo was created, but
moreover factors deforming their essence arose, to the point of
maintaining intact the structure of the original enterprises, to the
control of which they were subordinated.
In a subsequent article, Varela Pérez (2010b) listed the differences
between genuine cooperatives and the UBPCs that had worked to the
latter's detriment. But the new realism goes only so far. The UBPCs
failed, with few exceptions, because "they strayed from the essential
principles approved by the Politburo . . . the approved basic principles
were forgotten" and because of "the violation of the concepts that
brought the UBPCs to life." Yet it was the regime's penchant for
centralized decision-making and micromanagement that dominated in the
creation of the UBPCs in 1993. "We are so accustomed to disguise
ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves,"
La Rochefoucauld wrote long ago. As long as this is the case, the new
openness cannot progress from description of symptoms to diagnosis of
causes and thought-through response.
Recognition that beans are more important than cannons has not so far
led the government to more than tinker with two major issues that weigh
on the overall performance of Cuba's agriculture: the debacle of the
sugar agroindustry and the flawed system of state controls over farm
inputs and outputs.
For the sixth year running – and, ironically, when world market prices
reached their highest point since 1981, Cuba has produced less than 1.5
million metric tons of sugar in 2009/10, a fall of more than 80% from
the average annual output of the 1980s. In the last days of the harvest,
Reuters (3 June) put the final figure at 1.1-1.2 million metric tons.
In early May, a note from the council of state announced a change of
sugar ministers, the outgoing having asked to be relieved of his
responsibilities "on recognizing the deficiencies of his work which were
pointed out to him" (Granma, 4 May 2010). An agronomic engineer, he had
been promoted from first vice minister less than 18 months before, after
a 38-year career in the sugar sector. His replacement, a chemical
engineer, has similarly risen from first vice minister, after more than
30 years in the sugar sector. The new incumbent will not be a minister
for long, however, if the knowledgeable Reuters and Financial Times
correspondent in Cuba, Marc Frank, was right that the sugar ministry
would soon be transmuted into a corporation (Reuters, 7 April 2010).
The day after this announcement, Varela Pérez (2010f) blamed what he
called the poorest sugar crop since 1905 on bad organization,
overestimates of the available cane, and "a high grade of imprecisions
and voluntarism." But if this had to be the main tenor of a story put
out to explain the defenestration of the minister, disclosure that 55%
of the crop area had not been fertilized, only 3% irrigated (down from
up to 30% in the 1980s) and that sugarcane was "today the lowest paid
[product] in agriculture" rendered implausible the pretense that
"disciplinary measures" and "perfecting the system of administration"
were all the answer required. In calling for the restoration of
sugarcane to the place corresponding to its continued significance
economically and as "part of Cuba's patrimony," Varela Pérez either
forgot or hoped his readers will have forgotten Fidel Castro's
denunciation in 2005 of sugar as the "ruin" of Cuba's economy and
belonging to "the era of slavery" that was the cue to reduce the
industry to its present penury. With the 2009/10 harvest having starkly
demonstrated "the effects of the cane crisis" to the point where
continued decline could end in the industry's extinction, there was an
echo of the old Cuban saying, Sin azúcar, no hay país – without sugar,
there is no country, in the way Varela Pérez (2010i) posed the question
how to begin restoring sugar's "noble and economic tradition" that "has
distinguished Cubans historically." The repeated emphasis on the
unremunerative cane price – responsibility of the ministry of finance
and prices – suggests that the Cuban regime is not exempt from the
inter-departmental differences regularly seen in other governments.
The other big issue – the state's control over what goes into and comes
out of agriculture – lies at the heart of the Cuba's command economy,
which explains the regime's reluctance to tackle it in a fundamental way
despite the record of its vices stretching over decades.
In what is until now the most recent attempt to make the system more
efficient, the distribution and marketing functions of Acopio in Havana
city and province passed from the Ministry of Agriculture to Domestic
Commerce in August 2009. But within barely more than a month, it was
clear that Mincin "was not sufficiently prepared for the task," with the
result of "significant losses" of perishable products (Varela Pérez and
de la Hoz, 2009a). Anxious to find some progress, Granma's reporters
returned to the scene again and again (Varela Pérez and de la Hoz,
2009b, 2009c, 2009d), faith triumphing over experience: "However many
difficulties, the socialist market has to be a mission possible," they
wrote. It remained just a hope. In the first two months of 2010, the
state food markets in the capital received only 62% of the supplies they
were supposed to get from the farmers in the province. Among the
reasons: growers had been left without the fertilizer and plant
protection chemicals they needed in the last quarter of 2009, and Mincin
still had not got its act together. Bizarrely, a regulation prohibited
trucks carrying produce from other provinces to enter the city, even
with the proper documentation, and with Mincin company buyers no longer
picking up various kinds of horticultural produce, Havana province
farmers were reducing plantings (Varela Pérez, 2010d).
Across the island, apparatchik interference with supply and demand has
at different times and in different places thrown a variety of spanners
in the works. Farmers who have heeded government calls to produce more
have pitched up against a worn-out infrastructure. In Granma province,
an unspecified amount of rice was lost, some was processed below
quality, and growers still held 1,000 tons dried manually owing to
insufficient industrial drying, milling and storage capacity, and these
were not the only problems (Sariol Sosa, 2009). In a Villa Clara
municipality, the government got itself into a tangle with farmers who,
urged to plant a greater area of garlic than contemplated, produced
about double the crop it had contracted to buy (Pérez Cabrera, 2009). In
Camagüey, the state lactic products company was not ready to cope with
the increased volume of milk deliveries, and the milk spent, on average,
four and a half hours on the road between producer and processor, to the
detriment of its quality (Febles Hernández, 2009). Mangoes similarly
overwhelmed the infrastructure in Santiago de Cuba (Riquenes Cutiño,
2009). A cross-country survey of the non-citrus fruit situation
(Carrobello and de Jesús, 2010) found some improvements, notably the
appearance of roadside sales points and ambulant vendors; but production
and distribution continued to be hampered by lack of irrigation
facilities, input shortages ranging from fertilizer and plant chemicals
to gloves and boxes, difficulties in obtaining bank credits, and the
rigidities of the state procurement apparatus. Yet though he grumbled
about various deficiencies and incongruities, ANAP's Lugo Fonte still
thought that the cure lay in rigorous contracting between parties and
was not prepared to identify the monopsonistic and monopolistic position
of state enterprises in relation to the farmer as the root of the
problem (Barreras Ferrán, 2010).
A whiff of oligarchal factionalism came from a Lugo Fonte interview in
which he recounted the conditions that had depressed cattle farming in
the private sector. Small farmers had been allowed to sell their animals
only to state companies, most of which did not have scales and bought
the cattle "on the hoof," based on the color of the hide, the tail and
the horns, and with a high charge for slaughtering – all in accordance
with regulations. These rules had been dumped and beef prices sharply
raised. But, in order to preserve their margin, the companies were now
hindering producers from sending animals directly to the abattoir by
refusing to rent vehicles (Varela Pérez, 2010a). And while ANAP members
were being encouraged to send raw milk straight to retail outlets, Lugo
Fonte lamented that this practice had not been extended to other
products, such as eggs (Varela Pérez, 2010g).
If Acopio was provoking "downpours" of criticism, the mechanisms of
supplying farmers with inputs were causing a "tempest," Juventud
Rebelde, the Communist Party's youth organ, reported on the weekend of
the ANAP congress (Varios Autores, 2010). More was to come at the
congress itself. Entitled "For greater farm and forestry production,"
much of the 37-point report of its commission on production and the
economy was given over to a somewhat unselective survey of the gamut of
products, from rice to medicinal plants, and from beef to honey, in
which greater output could replace imports and enhance exports (Granma,
17 May 2010). But coupled with this were demands on government to
resolve a host of functional issues: credit provision; water usage
approval; allowing producers to sell directly to retailers, tourist
facilities and slaughterhouses; promoting local micro and
mini-industries; seasonal price differentiation; crop insurance; tax
reform; access to building materials; freeing the cooperatives from
restrictions and empowering them to enter into contracts; and reforming
quality norms. Of sufficient importance to deserve a point by themselves
were the "innumerable concerns" raised by the delegates from Havana city
and province concerning the system of commercialization piloted in these
territories – excessive product handling, crop losses, arguments over
quality, retail outlet permits, state company margins, cartage,
container return, and trucks owned by cooperatives being barred from
delivering straight to the city's state markets.
MARKET DEREGULATION? NOT YET
Closing the congress from the government side, minister of the economy
and planning Marino Murillo Jorge made it clear that there would be no
relaxation of the state's control of food marketing (Granma, 17 May
2010). In the sole reference to what he admitted was "one of the
subjects most discussed in this congress," he claimed consensus on the
need to improve the quality and compelling force of contracts, so that
the parties meet their obligations and the quantities agreed are
planted, harvested and marketed, avoiding the sale in the
suppy-and-demand markets of produce not certified as surplus to contract
or allowed free disposal. Government and ANAP had to collaborate "to
solve as soon as possible the problem of illegal intermediaries who
artificially raise prices without contributing to society."
Concerning market reform, Murillo Jorge had but one announcement – the
government would "organize the creation in the majority of the
municipalities of the country of an input market where producers could
acquire directly the resources necessary for crop and livestock
production, replacing the current mechanism of central allocation." The
price policy governing this market, he spelled out, "must guarantee, on
the one hand, recognition in the acopio price [the price at which the
state acquires products] of the real costs of production and, on the
other, the elimination of the great number of subsidies that the state
pays today through the budget." Whether this market will amount to
something more than adding to the small number of existing stores
selling tools and supplies for convertible pesos and how it will obtain
its merchandise, if not by central allocation, was left in the dark.
All together, it is hard to resist the impression that this was a
holding operation at which ANAP delegates could let off steam, but from
which they emerged none the wiser about key government policy areas that
affect the private farm sector. A number of subjects, Murillo Jorge
said, were "in process of analysis and study within the context of the
updating the Cuban economic model," naming taxation (of both farmers and
their workers), the contracting of outside labor (stating that more than
100,000 wage workers were employed by cooperatives), and the prices of
inputs and of acopio.
Speaking to the congress of the Communist Party's youth organization in
April 2010 (Granma, 5 April), Raúl Castro acknowledged the existence of
voices urging a faster pace of change. Whether the regime's tempo is
dictated by the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing Cuba, as
he claimed, by divisions among the leadership, by lack of the cash
needed to jump-start major reforms, by incompetence, or by all these, is
an unknown – certainly to outsiders. Specifically in the area of farm
policy, the twists and turns over half a century invite the question: do
the policymakers really understand agriculture and how it develops? When
it comes to the effective application of scientific and technological
advances – highlighted by Murillo Jorge as "an aspect that requires the
greatest immediate attention," for instance, are Cuba's policymakers
sufficiently versed in the agricultural history of other countries to
appreciate the interactions of market forces, farmer-boffins, equipment
manufacturers, chemical companies, plant breeders and agribusinesses,
alongside of public institutions such as experiment stations and
extension services, that drive innovation?
Although located, broadly speaking, towards the opposite end of the
spectrum from the extensive model of agroindustry growth that hit the
buffers in the second half of the 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin
Wall, the concept now being promoted is similarly extensive in several
respects. In pursuit of the goals of replacing imports and increasing
exports of agricultural products, the government campaigns to substitute
human muscle and animal power for engines, compost for inorganic
fertilizers, home-grown animal feedstuffs for concentrates, and
prioritizes the expansion of land under cultivation over raising yields.
Comprehensible, up to a point, as fire-fighting in the midsts of current
economic and financial woes, can these methods generate a serious
improvement in Cuba's agricultural trade balance? While the application
of idle land and labor will surely increase the domestic food supply,
can it make the country anywhere near self-sufficient? Is this model
viable in the longer run?
Disturbingly, in all the hype in favor of using oxen for field work and
transport, there is nary an indication that either the costs of
breeding, rearing, training, feeding and apparelling the animals, or the
productivity of a team, including its driver, taking into account speed
of locomotion and length of working day, have been factored in. Likewise
missing from the hymns to the benefits of compost are signs of awareness
that to make enough compost for general application entails
industrial-scale production techniques with specialized equipment.
To project the picture of a new mentality gestating in the countryside,
Juventud Rebelde located, for its edition on the weekend of the ANAP
congress, a few young farmers earning several times the average national
wage (Varios Autores, 2010). "In my case," said one, "when I get the
money together, I'll buy myself a cellphone, because I need it; let them
tell me that, like other presidents of cooperatives, I don't have with
what to communicate." Twenty-first century aspirations in Cuba, as
elsewhere. For his part, Raúl Castro – spookily bringing to mind
Churchillian rhetoric – proclaimed before the National Assembly on 1
August 2009: "They didn't elect me president to restore capitalism in
Cuba or to surrender the Revolution. I was elected to defend, maintain
and continue perfecting socialism, not to destroy it." For that, he
realized, beans are more important than cannons. Does he understand that
they are more important than command and control?
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