Cuban farmers and the government: Let’s talk business

At Machito’s farm, just outside of Remedios, one can find almost anything: from fruits and vegetables, to cattle, and just recently planted tobacco. “I plant tobacco by tradition, but it’s not part of my social objective. My business is livestock, various crops and fruit trees, but I like to plant it [tobacco],” and clarifies, “I absorb the cost of planting it.” 

Machito then adds:

“When I planted this year garlic and tobacco were competing.” 

“Competing?” I questioned…

“It’s that garlic and tobacco are well compensated and people grow them. It’s their vaquencia.”

Vaquencia?!” I’ve never heard that word. 

“It’s that they’re lazy! And when I run out of tobacco, what am I going to do? Sit at home and look at my wife? I do other things; I’m a worker.”

Contracts moving forward

That sense of a greater purpose or a “social objective,” as Machito refers to it, may not be very common anymore, at least not in the same way as he sees it. There have been changes in the Cuban agricultural scene possibly reflected in the ways farmers think these days.

In a recent tour of the provinces, Cuban Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa noted a tendency of farmers to grow highly lucrative crops such as potatoes, corn or tobacco, whose cycles (90 days on average) are comparatively shorter than others for which the marketing companies pay less. “Nobody wants to produce food anymore: farmers are not stimulated by the banana, sweet potato, the pumpkin and other crops,” said Valdez Mesa. “But we must produce all of those things. You can’t live with beans and rice alone.” 

The solution, he said, would be to strengthen Acopio [Editor’s Note: Acopio is Cuba’s historically inefficient state procurement and distribution company] by elevating it to the rank of Superior Organization of Business Management (OSDE), so that it is able to contract as much as possible being produced on the fields at favorable prices for growers. Will this be possible?

Two years ago, the scale of the prices from small producers and cooperatives was reformed for the purchase of rice, potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, beef, pork, coffee and cocoa so that they were kept within the portfolio of options for farmers. At the time, Marino Murillo, head of the Commission for the Implementation of the Guidelines approved at the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (2011), commented that the measures would guarantee 30 percent of profits for producers, and stressed that prices would not rise in the retail network.  

Why the emphasis on keeping farmers happy?

The Cuban government today can’t control — even if it wanted to — what is or isn’t cultivated in the country. Starting in the decade of the 1990s Cuba’s collectivization project in agriculture was gradually abandoned in favor of individual producers. During this process, under the term of agricultural transformation, explains the French sociologist and anthropologist Marie Aureille, the participation of state companies was reduced both in the possession and practical use of the land. 

Although the Cuban state continues to be majority owner (56 percent) of all land existing in Cuba, according to data compiled by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), in terms of how this land is used, state-owned farms are responsible for less than 20 percent of its cultivation, while cooperative and independent farmers control no less than 80 percent.

According to the researcher, the favorable balance toward small agricultural property would have had, among other consequences, what she calls a new political ontology among farmers, which perhaps explains the “laziness” described earlier by Machito. Ms. Aureille warns that a different way of seeing economic activity is gaining ground among farmers in the country. It is no longer just sacrifice per se in pursuit of collective progress, but rather the advancement of all is being calibrated by “more pragmatic ways of combining individual aspirations and the common well-being,” she says.

It is not, she stresses, that those who live in rural areas have stopped believing in “the objectives of equality, equity and coexistence promoted by the Cuban revolutionary project.” It is that the commitment to contribute to the collective welfare is increasingly being weighed against “the development of individual aspirations, and the search for greater returns for sustenance of a certain quality of life and consumption.”

After studying the modes of organization of agricultural producers in Cuba’s rural western areas, Aureille noted that for these farmers the “economic possibilities which would improve their living conditions” were one of the main reasons that motivated them to dedicate themselves to agriculture, when many of these persons were qualified to practice other professions.

The sociologist emphasizes that the government’s official discourse is careful when criticizing the higher than usual incomes that farmers earn. It is, she says, a question justified from the governmental point of view “by the difficulty of agricultural work and by the idea that without these higher earnings the farmer feels less stimulated, and this affects the food security of the country.”

The government’s actions influencing the balance of what crops are grown would corroborate their conclusions. Add to this the monetary incentives and contacts with farmers from the forums of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).

Recently in Santiago de Cuba executives from ANAP exhorted their membership to a “greater organization and discipline in the contracting of productions, saving of resources, substitution of imports and delivery of food.” 

“We must contribute more and with greater efficiency,” said Rafael Santiesteban, the president of ANAP.

Under the current economic conditions it would be convenient to note what studies like those conducted by Marielle Aureille say about what seem to be transformations that are already measurable in the minds of farmers. This sector was among the first beneficiaries of the Revolution through the Agrarian Reform Law, whose promulgation will soon turn 60.

But this political capital is not infinite. Therefore proceeding based on studies like those aforementioned, and discussing the business of agriculture with those on whose shoulders rests the cultivation of most of Cuba’s food, requires building mutually beneficial paths of consensus. These spaces of confluence of interests require consideration of the necessary economic incentives that legitimizes and catalyzes support of the farmers, thus lubricating the gears of Cuban agriculture.

Note: Marie Aureille is a PhD student in Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. She has a degree in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy, Risk Management and Health from the Institute of Political Studies of Touluse. she has conducted several research studies in Cuba with the support of the Faculty of Geography of the University of Havana and Flacso-Cuba.