Theodor Friedrich 2017-02-22 23:37:09
Over the past few years, Cuba has attracted global attention. The processes of updating its socioeconomic model and renewing frozen relations with the U.S. have suggested that the country could soon open up to the world. In fact, Cuba has received numerous government and business delegations of late, and growing curiosity has triggered an unprecedented tourist boom from all over the world. However, that story is not the whole truth. As always, there are different facets of the truth. Many stories about Cuba celebrate small successes as if they were characteristic of the entire country or an indicator of a new trend, particularly in the agriculture sector. A little background Agriculture has always been a priority in Cuba. Before the revolution, Cuba was mainly an agrarian economy; after the revolution, the agriculture sector received much early attention. The Cuban revolution—an armed revolt by Fidel Castro’s “26th of July” movement against the authoritarian government of Fulgencio Batista—began in 1953 and continued until the rebels ousted Batista six years later. In Cuban newspeak, while January 1st, 1959, marks the triumph of the revolution, the revolution is an ongoing, irreversible, never-ending process. Less well known is that the rebels initially replaced Batista’s government with a democratic government, searching for support mainly from the U.S. Only later was the socialist character of the revolution proclaimed. When the Soviet Union became Cuba’s supporting ally, the movement reformed along communist lines, becoming the Cuban communist party in October 1965. In other words, the Cuban revolution had powerful domestic and international repercussions and reshaped Cuba’s relationship with the U.S., which soured when the U.S. refused to help the new government. Since then, efforts to improve diplomatic relations have gained momentum, as evidenced by the recent visit by President Obama. Almost immediately, Castro’s new government began a program of nationalization and political consolidation that transformed Cuba’s economy and society. Agricultural reform was one of the first priorities. Land owned by wealthy landlords or foreign companies was handed over to farmers, and institutions were established to support a farmer-based agricultural system. This initial process was overtaken by subsequent land reforms that established state farms, following the Soviet model, after the U.S. had turned its back on Cuba. Many research facilities were established in those early years, and all are still operating, but their glory has passed. Most of them work with obsolete equipment, and all of them struggle to keep up with international developments as a result of restricted internet access. From the start, the new government also focused on fighting hunger and defined the right to food as an unquestionable human right. During the colonial era, Cuba was mainly dependent on food imports, which were paid for with sugar. That system was maintained until the 1990s, and sugar production became heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it Cuba’s food supply system. With the collapse, production inputs became unaffordable. Yields and productivity plummeted, and sugar production was drastically reduced. Agricultural land was left unattended, and thorny bushes— called marabú—took over. Cuba had to seek international help to feed its people. With enormous effort, Cuba emerged from that crisis and is now free of hunger, but serious challenges remain. The challenge? Overcoming dependence Because Cuba produces very little, the country depends on imports. These imports are paid for by the income created by services, particularly medical services, by Cuban experts working overseas, and by students from foreign countries who study in Cuba. While education is free for Cubans, foreign students have to pay. Other major income sources are money sent from expatriate Cubans and, increasingly, tourism. Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are important export products. Cuban research has produced new biological controls for pests and diseases, and biotechnology has become one of the most advanced research areas in the country. Agricultural exports are very low. One development for which Cuba became internationally famous was the urban and suburban farming movement and interest in organic farming methods. With the growth of urban and suburban farming, idle areas in and around cities were brought under cultivation, mainly for vegetable crops, which improved the national diet and helped overcome hunger. Today, these enterprises—called organopónicos—provide thousands of Cubans with a relatively good livelihood. However, the story that Cuba is now feeding itself organically and with minimal animal power is a myth. While farming without inputs has been successful, this type of farming feeds just a fraction of the population and is not attracting a new generation of farmers. Urban and suburban farming provides about 60% of the national vegetable production, which covers only a small portion of the average Cuban diet. Meanwhile, rural areas are increasingly abandoned, and Cuba’s traditional farming population is aging faster than the general population. In addition, not all the vegetables grown in Cuba can be safely called “organic,” and neither can the staple crops, such as rice, where aerial pesticide application is still common. Very few local production sectors manage to satisfy the market demand, among them pork and eggs, but even those sectors depend on imported feed. The inputs used by traditional agriculture, starting with fuel for wasteful and soil-degrading tillage operations, as well as synthetic fertilizers (mainly nitrogen) and pesticides, are imported and distributed by the state planning system. This system oversees the production of sugar, rice, and other staple crops, as well as some vegetable crops, coffee, and particularly tobacco, a crop that receives special attention. The technology packages that are distributed for planned production are sometimes very generous but sometimes too little to result in significant yields. In addition, the soils are generally so degraded that their response to fertilizer is low. Some inputs also find their way into other sectors, particularly vegetable farming, which is economically attractive. Dedicated vegetable producers, particularly those who come close to organic production, have discovered the tourist market. Some excellent farm-to-table producers are directly linked to this market. Most of their vegetables are sold under contract to private restaurants and government-run and joint-venture tourist facilities, where the prices are out of reach for ordinary Cubans. High prices are also seen in the public vegetable markets, so that Cubans without access to foreign currency can hardly afford healthy food. And the production level is hardly sufficient even for those who can afford fresh vegetables, such as tourists, resident foreigners, and wealthier Cubans. This situation has created discomfort in the population and the government. In general, the success stories that are published internationally are not representative of the actual food situation in Cuba. Despite agriculture being the government’s highest priority, Cuba still imports up to 80% of its food. The model? Outdated infrastructure Agricultural production in Cuba is characterized by socialist economics. Only 20% of the land is privately owned. The state allocates land through user rights, which are granted for 20 years to farmers or for longer periods to cooperatives. Nearly all farmers are organized into various forms of cooperatives, which now represent about 70% of the agricultural land, while state-run enterprises account for the rest. Most of the cooperatives are “agricultural production cooperatives” (CPAs) in which farmers work collectively. Similarly structured collective farming units, which have been broken out of large state farms, are called “basic units of cooperative production” (UBPC). The state-run enterprises focus on strategic sectors, such as seed production and animal genetics. Individual farmers are organized into credit and service cooperatives, which provide them with a legal right to buy services, inputs, and machinery to which they otherwise would not have access. These private farms produce about 70% of Cuba’s agricultural output on less than 30% of the land. However, as with the larger cooperatives and state-run enterprises, all their inputs and machinery are imported and distributed by the government, and their exports go through the government as well. The machinery is often obsolete, in bad condition or, if new, mismatched in size or type because the procurement process is driven by supply rather than demand. Some new machines have come into the country due to lines of credit from Brazil, China, Russia, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and to a lesser extent, Europe. The Cuban government also provides the service and maintenance infrastructure for agricultural machinery through the cooperatives, while the international manufacturers are limited to training Cuban technicians. This central planning leads to problems with maintenance and spare parts. For example, of the 28,540 privately owned tractors in Cuba, only 8% are out of service, despite the fact that most privately owned tractors have more than 50 years of service. In contrast, of the 25,634 collectively owned tractors, with maintenance and spare parts controlled by the government, fully 24% are out of service. Illusion? No easy recovery To the above challenges, we can add more difficulties: degraded soils, lack of water, increased climate variability, and obsolete infrastructure— including poor roads and inadequate transport, storage, and processing facilities. To recover and move forward, Cuban farming needs to adopt conservation agriculture: (1) to stop soil degradation, (2) to reduce production costs, (3) to improve fertilizer response and production levels, and (4) to reduce the impacts of extreme climatic events. The agricultural infrastructure, including the transport, storage, and processing facilities, needs to be renovated and adapted to new diversified production systems, particularly the input supply system. Marketing structures have to be updated by respecting socialist principles while making them functional. The Cuban government has always given priority to agriculture, and it is aware of these challenges. Government ministries are working on new strategies for responding to the challenges and opening up the economy. At the same time, this new mandate must not endanger the positive achievements of the revolution. That’s a delicate balance, and it shows why one of the most common expressions in Cuba is ¡No es fácil! (“It’s not easy!”). ASABE member Theodor Friedrich, Senior Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and representative in Cuba (Representante en Cuba, Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura, La Habana, Cuba), Theodor.Friedrich@fao.org. Dr. Friedrich has worked in international assignments in agricultural engineering and development over the last three decades.
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