Reform On The Range: Cubans Heed The Call To Farm
by Nick Miroff
September 21, 2010
Cuba has miles and miles of fertile, lush countryside where nothing is
growing or grazing. After five decades of state-controlled agriculture,
the country struggles to feed itself, forcing the government to import
some 70 percent of the island's food.
Cuban President Raul Castro wants to change that and is asking
enterprising Cubans to go back to the land.
Aniley Pena was watching TV two years ago when she heard the offer. The
government was giving out free 10-year leases on state-owned land to
anyone willing to take a crack at farming.
Today, she has 12 acres on the outskirts of Bejucal, a small town 20
miles south of Havana.
Pena is 38, rugged enough to trudge around in rubber boots, but not too
earthy to wear mascara in the fields. She shields herself from the
withering sun with a parasol and a Nike cap, supervising a team of men
as they mix organic fertilizer into beds of radishes, carrots, scallions
Pena's tractor is a little red Ford from the Truman era she inherited
from her late grandfather. She has called her farm "Las Estrellas" — The
Stars. Stars are bright, and they bring clarity, she said, which is what
this new vocation has given her.
"Being out here relaxes me," Pena says. "Plus I know I'm doing something
good for society, and also for myself."
Independence, Sense Of Security
Pena is the new face of Cuban socialism, a private entrepreneur with a
sense of social responsibility. She was trained as a veterinarian, but
like many in Cuba who aren't inspired by $20-a-month government
salaries, she dropped out of the workforce.
Now, she's working seven days a week and studying pest control methods
at night. As part of her deal with the government, she will give
one-third of her produce to the state and sell the rest for a profit.
"Having this land, you realize how productive it can be," Pena says.
"When you're growing your own food, you have independence, and that
gives you a sense of security."
The Castro government has approved more than 100,000 applications for
state land, but so far that hasn't led to an increase in food production.
As usual, bureaucratic absurdities are to blame. Farmers can't buy
tractors or trucks without government permission. Irrigation equipment
and tools have to be assigned by the state.
Police checkpoints surround Havana to make sure no one is illegally
sneaking produce into the city for sale on the black market.
The government's new solution is fruit and vegetable stands where
farmers can sell directly to customers. They are popping up all over the
island, as some Cubans are even getting back land that belonged to their
families before it was nationalized in the early 1960s.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a dissident economist in Havana.
"The reforms are a step forward, but they're not going to fix the
problem," he says. "Cuba needs more radical changes, but the government
is too scared to give up control."
Feed Mother Cuba, Save Mother Earth
There's an old joke in Cuba that if education, health care and athletics
are the Cuban revolution's greatest achievements, then its three biggest
failings are breakfast, lunch and dinner. Government supermarkets —
where many Cubans can't even afford to shop — stock imported mango juice
from Mexico, chicken from Brazil and butter from Denmark. All could be
easily produced locally.
Lorenzo Ramos is another farmer taking advantage of the government deal.
On a recent day, he is making fertilizer from decomposing sugar cane stalks.
His five-acre plot was choked with garbage and thorny weeds when he got
it a year ago. But with his machete and his rusting Soviet tractor, he
and his wife have turned a wasteland into a tidy orchard of fruit tree
Some fruit varieties have grown so scarce in Cuba that Raul Castro
complained about their disappearance in a speech last year.
Ramos has responded by planting rows of mangos, guavas, peaches, lemons
and prized delicacies like the guanabana, or custard apple.
"Having a farm means coping with everything — ants, thunderstorms,
scratches, hurricanes, waking up at dawn," Ramos says. "It's sacrifice
and hard work, but somebody has to do it. We can't all be intellectuals,
because then there'd be nothing to eat."
Ramos has put up a sign along the highway next to his farm, inspired by
something Bolivian President Evo Morales said on TV. "Save Mother
Earth," the sign reads, and Ramos is hoping to put his fruit stand right
next to it.