The Magazine

Dirt Poor in the Workers' Paradise

Eighty-four percent of Cuba's food is imported.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By BLAKE HURST
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New Year's Day marked the fiftieth anniversary of Castro's takeover in Cuba. From political prisons to firing squads to Russian missiles, his regime has been a disaster. Yet today people hold up the Cuban food system as a model for the rest of the world.

Sustainable, largely organic, community-based, and healthy food production in post-Soviet Cuba is offered by critics of "industrial agriculture" as an example of the sort of system that we should aspire to in the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet subsidies for Cuba's sugar industry in the early 1990s, a near famine forced Cubans to radically change what they consumed and the manner in which it was produced. By 1993, per capita calorie consumption in Cuba had been cut by a third from the Soviet-subsidized level.

Cuba loosened restrictions on private production of food, moved from export crops to staple production, and learned how to survive without subsidies. And to hear environmentalist Bill McKibben tell the story, the island has become a sort of tropical paradise for "foodies." Community gardens, organic production, even plowing with oxen--Cuban agriculture is sustainable, and Cubans are happy indeed with their lot as small farmers. Compost, beneficial insects, urban gardens, farmer's markets "stacked deep with shiny heaps of bananas and dried beans, mangoes and tomatoes": McKibben has seen paradise, and reported on it in both his book Deep Economy (2007) and a long article in Harper's magazine.

Lydia Zepeda drew many of the same conclusions. Writing in Choices magazine, a journal focusing on agricultural economics, in 2003, she describes with breathless awe the changes in Cuban agriculture, including the transfer of much land to cooperatives "rent free" (emphasis hers). Except for the production quotas owed to the state in perpetuity. Farmers can even sell their excess production in farmers' markets.

According to Zepeda, "agroecology" is the new emphasis in agricultural research. And the results have been outstanding. Vegetable production quadrupled between 1994 and 1997; bean, potato, and citrus production increased by huge amounts as well. Lacking fuel for machinery, farmers are using some 150,000 oxen to till their ground. This is good for soil structure, according to Zepeda, since animals weigh less than tractors. By the time her article was published, calorie consumption in Cuba was still less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization, but some things are worth other people being hungry for, and "sustainable agriculture" is one of them.

Paul Roberts is another writer who finds much to admire in Cuba. His book The End of Food (2008) is a paean to the banishing of the evil tractor and the awful fertilizer, the wonderful diversity, the docile oxen chewing their cud, the peasants happily hoeing as peasants ought to do. Roberts quotes McKibben to the effect that this concentration on labor-intensive agriculture is a wee bit more possible in a police state than it would be elsewhere. After all, Cuba had lots of excess labor and the ability to move it where it was needed without too many scruples. An important point. Roberts is wistfully aware that we are unlikely to adopt such a food system here, but points out hopefully that we might have to, if we run out of oil or productive soil or experience some other catastrophic failure. And we might be forced to use a stethoscope instead of an MRI, if the same worries about modernity were applied to our medical system as are projected upon farming.

Cuban agriculture in the age of the USSR was crazy. The Soviets sold Cuba fertilizer at below-market prices, with which to raise sugar--on inefficient, irrational, ideologically correct collective farms--that Cuba then sold back to the Soviets at above-market prices. The improvements since the end of the Soviet era have come not because a sense of community has been engendered by the necessity of adapting premodern kinds of farming, but because market incentives are sneaking in around the edges of a moribund and cruel system.

Even so, promoters of present-day Cuba tend to gloss over a few facts. Like the fact that the ration coupons allow for only about half of the needed calories and that agriculture is so inefficient that Cubans spend about 50 to 70 percent of their gross income supplementing the food available through the state system. More than a quarter of the Cuban work force is, moreover, involved in agriculture.

A recent article in the Cuban press, noted in a study by the USDA's Office of Global Analysis, quoted a high-level Cuban ministry of agriculture official who revealed that 84 percent of all food consumed in Cuba is imported. CNN reports that Raúl Castro is moving to boost food production by putting more land under the control of private farmers. State-run television claims that half of all agricultural land in Cuba is not farmed or is farmed in an unproductive manner. According to CNN, "A thorny bush called marabu fills many of the unused fields and has become a symbol for the failure of agriculture. Last year, Raúl Castro himself bitterly joked about how much of it he could see along the highway."

So, according to American visitors, the symbols of Cuban agriculture are full markets and happy farmers tilling their urban plots of organic vegetables. According to the Cubans themselves, the symbol is the marabu bush. The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been loosened, and food imports from the United States have been increasing rapidly. If you are going to have a sustainable agricultural paradise, it helps to have a nearby neighbor with a million or so industrial farmers.

Blake Hurst is a farmer and writer in Missouri.