Cuban agriculture
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Winds of Change Blow Across Cuba

Winds of Change Blow Across Cuba

New America Media, News Analysis, Roger Burbach, Posted: Jan 25, 2009
Review it on NewsTrust

Editor's Note: Cuba celebrated its 50th anniversary of the revolution as
a new administration moved into Washington with the promise of change,
and as the transition in Cuba's own government faces inevitable change,
much of it percolating up from the people. Roger Burbach is the director
of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting
Scholar at the of California, Berkeley.

, Cuba–The Cuban revolution is in a process of transition and
transformation as it marks its 50th anniversary. I have visited the
country every decade since the revolution's triumph, and excepting the
60s, I have never experienced the Cuban people more open and discursive
about their future. As Rafael Hernandez, the director of the widely read
social and cultural journal Temas tells me, "We are rethinking the very
nature of society and what socialism means. A discussion is opening up
on many fronts over where we are headed, how property is to be defined,
what is the role of the market, and how we can achieve greater political
participation, particularly among the youth. Within the upper levels of
the state and the Communist party there is real resistance to this, but
the debate has been joined."

To be sure there are many differences expressed over what the future of
the revolution holds under Raul Castro who replaced his brother Fidel as
two and a half years ago. I watched Raul's speech on the 50th
anniversary on TV at a café in Old Havana with a couple I first met 16
years ago, both of whom work in the field of education. Adriana, at the
end of the speech comments, "While Raul did not say much about the
current moment, he presented a good summation of what have been the
revolution's advances and challenges." She and her husband, Julio, take
particular note of Raul's words that "this is a revolution of the humble
and for the humble:" The leadership "will never rob or betray this trust."

Yaneli, the women who cooks at the house where I am staying, has a
different take. As I am reading Raul's discourse over breakfast the next
morning in the official newspaper Granma, she glances over my shoulder,
and I ask her what she thinks of Raul's speech. She says "Nothing, its
unimportant." I nod, understanding how she could view Raul's words as
platitudes meaning little for her daily life. Then, as she is about to
go back to the kitchen she notices a photo in the paper of a ballet
performance presented before Raul's speech that was dedicated to a
political martyr of the revolution. "Ah," she says, "one of the
performers might be an instructor of my 12-year-old son who loves
ballet. He has taken lessons at since he was six and has placed
first in several competitive events."

In old Havana I am struck by the presence on the streets and cafes of
gays and transvestites. They are not harassed by the unless they
sell their favors to foreigners, who tend to be Italians, according to
Adriana and Julio. A toleration and discussion of sexuality diversity
became more wide spread in 2006 when Raul's daughter, Mariela Castro
Espin, published a special issue of the magazine she edits, "Sexology
and Society." On the inside of the cover page the very first words are:
"To be homosexual, bisexual, transsexual or transvestite is not an
illness nor a perversity, nor does it constitute any type of offense."

Much like the United States, many Cuban gays still feel oppressed by the
mores of their society. At a book store several blocs from the Havana
Libre Hotel, the old Havana Hilton of pre-revolutionary days, I meet
Elieser, the 38-year-old owner of the stores' impressive collection of
new and used journals, magazines and books. I ask him what he has in the
way of analytical or critical publications on the revolution. He goes to
grab several boxes on the far side of the store, comes back, pushes
close to me and says "You know we gays have been terribly abused and
oppressed in Cuba." I move back a bit, making it clear I am not gay, but
query empathetically what he means. "We have been arrested by the scores
at night and thrown in jail, even though no laws were broken." When did
this happen I ask. "In the 1970's," he says.

"What about now, what do you think of Raul?" He responds, "I like what
he says and think he is good for Cuba." But he then goes on to lament
that in spite of the change in official attitudes a "couple of my gay
friends who are teachers in schools are shunned and encounter
discrimination in the classroom."

Elieser then moves on to another point of contention in Cuba: "Most of
the books I sell are in the convertible peso currency bought by
foreigners like you, so I am able to get along, but I can't change them
into dollars and go to Miami. I will probably die with the United States
always remaining a dream to me." I turn and am about to leave and he
says, "wait," rushes into the back of the store and brings me out the
first four issues of Temas published in 1995. He says "these are of
historic importance, they were sharply attacked and criticized for being
anti-revolutionary, but they paved the way for the vital political
developments that are taking place now."

The most widespread and heated discussions one hears in Havana are not
over sexual rights or politics, but the , particularly
agriculture and the availability of stuffs in the state and public
markets. I arrange an interview with Armando Nova, a leading
agricultural economist at the Center of Cuban Economic Studies. As we
sit outside his office on a warm sunny afternoon, he flat off declares,
"Our agricultural is in crisis. Sixty percent of the caloric
intake and 62 percent of the protein consumed by the average Cuban are
imported." Cuba is a rich agricultural country, yet approximately half
of its tillable agricultural land is in open pasture or lays idle.

Nova goes on to describe the agricultural reforms that were introduced
in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off its food
exports as well as agricultural inputs from fertilizers to tractors and
irrigation systems. "We encouraged urban and rural gardens for family
consumption, pushed cooperatives and allowed some free marketing that
helped see us through the difficult times. But the current system is an
inefficient mishmash." It is comprised of state farms, state directed
cooperatives, and more autonomous cooperatives usually formed by
peasants with "no one knowing from one year to the next what to expect
in terms of government policies or supplies," he says.

Added to this is the lack of an agricultural work force, as most of the
Cuban rural youth who have access to free education at all levels have
no interest in the long hours and back breaking labor of the fields, be
it even as independent farmers. The most shocking aspect of Cuban
agriculture is the collapse of sugar production. The country that served
as a "sugar bowl," first to the United States and then to the Soviet
Union, today imports the high caloric sweetener to meet the needs of its

In an effort to remedy the situation, new legislation was passed under
Raul last year that permits anyone to solici
t the government for 10
hectares of idle land that can be held and farmed in usufruct, i.e., for
an indefinite period of time. The new farmers have the right to work the
land independently and sell their produce on the open market. But the
tendency is to join a cooperative because of the availability of
regularized inputs, not because the state is trying to deny them access,
but because the coops have more purchasing clout.

"As of October, says Nova, there have been 80,000 petitions submitted
for 800,000 hectares of land." He is hopeful, but says "we still need to
set up an open market for the distribution of inputs, which at present
are allocated by the state at fixed prices." He does not believe that
all lands should be thrown open to small scale farming; there are
efficiencies in state farms and state directed coops in the production
of crops like sugar cane, potatoes, and perhaps some areas of beef and
poultry production.

Rafael Hernandez of Temas concurs with Nova's perspective on the need to
open up the market to smaller producers in agriculture as well as
commerce and industry. When I ask him if this means Cuba is moving
towards the Chinese model, he responds that "a group of technocrats are
bent on narrowly following in the economist tracks of the Chinese. But
there are others like me who argue that political reforms have to go
hand in hand with economic changes. Workers and small farmers need to
participate in the discussion of what political changes they would like
to see from the bottom up in the economy and the society around them. If
we don't have reforms in both areas, our socialist future will be in

Alvaro Alonso, a sociologist and the assistant director of the country's
internationally renown publishing house, Casa de las Americas, traces
the current opening to experimentation back to the "Special Period" of
the early 1990s. "We had a dependency on the Soviet model, not unlike
that which we had before the revolution with the United States. The
severe economic hardship we experienced forced us to experiment in
different forms of production, and there was a greater push for
political as well as economic reforms from below."

I ask Alonso if he thinks Cuba is more open under Raul then Fidel. "Yes,
but not because Fidel imposed his views and ideology on others," he
responds. "He was such a brilliant revolutionary leader and thinker that
others deferred to him. They took as a starting point in their
discussions or writings what he had to say. Raul is not the same
commanding figure, he delegates authority, and does not dominate the
political discussions. The ferment for change is widespread as our
society enters a broad participatory dialogue over where we want to go."

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