“There must be much hunger,” says one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters in Islands in the Stream. “You cannot realize it,” comes the reply. “No I can’t,” Thomas Hudson thought. “I can’t realize it at all. I can’t realize why there should ever be any hunger in this country ever.” Traveling through Cuba, you’ll also sense the vast potential that caused René Dumont, the outstanding French agronomist, to say that “with proper management, Cuba could adequately feed five times its current population.”
Before the Revolution, Cuba certainly couldn’t feed itself: The best arable lands were planted in sugarcane for export. Alas, since the Revolution, management of agriculture has been inept. First, Castro organized land in a system of centralized, inefficient state farms dedicated to sugarcane monoculture to satisfy the Soviet sweet tooth. (Cuba is the only country in Latin America whose production of rice, for example, hasn’t risen since 1958; in 2008, major investment was initiated to increase rice production.) Declining agricultural production was exacerbated in the early 1990s due to a lack of machinery, fertilizers, and alternating droughts and torrential storms. Food distribution is also centralized and highly inefficient.
In September 1993 Cuba established autonomous cooperatives that farm government land but own the crop they harvest (although they must follow state directives and sell their crops to the state at fixed prices). Private owners utilize about 20 percent of Cuba’s cultivable land; they, too, must sell 80 percent of their produce to the state at fixed prices. The Cubans also began experimenting with alternative farming in the early 1980s; the demise of the Soviet Union forced them to plunge in headlong. Meanwhile, several thousand community-operated gardens have eased food shortfalls (alongside private farms, these agropónicos account for about half the food grown in Cuba).
Since taking over from Fidel, Raúl has initiated significant reforms: More than 45,000 farmers have been given usufruct of vacant state land (more than half of Cuba’s arable land lies idle, however); local councils have been given greater autonomy over food production; and the state has supposedly paid its outstanding debts to farmers and increased the prices it pays for produce.
Despite these changes, production remains insufficient to meet domestic needs: In 2007, Cuba imported US$1.6 billion in food, equivalent to 80 percent of what it consumes (35 percent came from the United States, worth US$718 million in 2008, making Uncle Sam Cuba’s largest supplier of food).
Cattle, Citrus, and Coffee
Cuba has always had a strong cattle industry, particularly in the provinces around Camagüey, which has been famous for beef and dairy production since before the Revolution. There were 6.5 million head of cattle on the eve of the Revolution, when milk production was 9.6 million liters a year. Following the Revolution, the herds were slaughtered to compensate for falling production of other foods; by 1963, there were only two million head.
That year, Castro took a lively interest and made animal husbandry a national priority, resulting in the breeding of Cuba’s home-grown Charolais, Santa Gertrudis, and F1 strains. By 1980, Cuba had replenished its herds. Thereafter the industry has again declined. Private farmers are again permitted to raise cattle, but they are severely restricted. (Killing cattle for private consumption or sale of meat is illegal, and farmers are fined for each head of cattle they lose.)
Cuba produces about one million tons of citrus. Most citrus goes to produce juices and extracts, much of it for export to Europe. Effort has been made in recent years to upgrade with investments from Chile and Israel.
Cuba produces excellent coffee. The finest quality is grown in the Sierra Escambray, although most coffee is grown in the mountains of eastern Cuba. Cuba enjoyed modest exports on the eve of the Revolution, following which Fidel initiated a massive and disastrous coffee planting scheme that cordoned lowland Havana with the upland plant. Production has since declined markedly, due, not least, to out-of-date technology and the use of unskilled high school students to bring in the harvest. Production peaked in 2006 at over 8,000 tons. The highest quality coffee is exported. Domestic coffee is adulterated with roasted wheat.
¡Azúcar! The whole country reeks of sweet, pungent sugar, Cuba’s curse and blessing. The unusual depth and fertility of Cuba’s limestone soils are unparalleled in the world for producing sugar. The Cuban landscape is one of endless cane fields, lorded over by the towering chimneys of great sugar mills.
The nation’s bittersweet bondsman has been responsible for curses like slavery and the country’s almost total dependence on not only the one product, but on single imperial nations: first Spain, then the United States, and most recently the Soviet Union. Production rose gradually from about five million tons a year in the early 1970s to 7.5 million tons on average in the late 1980s. Three-quarters went to feed the Soviet bear; the rest went to capitalist markets to earn hard currency. The collapse of the Soviet bloc rendered a triple whammy to Cuba’s obsolete sugar industry. Cuba had to produce more and more sugar to generate the same income while facing growing competition from new producers such as India and increasingly more efficient sugar beet producers. From seven million tons in 1991, the harvest plummeted to 1.4 million tons in 2009, worth a relatively paltry US$220 million.
In 2002, the government announced that more than 3.1 million acres of canefields were to be converted to food crops. All but 44 of the nation’s 156 sugar mills have since been closed and 100,000 sugar workers made redundant. Then, remarkably, in another turnabout in 2006, the government announced that it intended to revive the sugar industry and expand production!
About 50,000 hectares are given to tobacco, Cuba’s second most important agricultural earner of foreign exchange. It is grown predominantly in a 90-mile-long, 10-mile-wide valley—Vuelta Abajo—in Pinar del Río, on small properties, principally privately owned; the average holding is only 10 hectares (about 25 acres).
The tobacco industry has been devastated by hurricanes in recent years, causing massive devastation and losses within the industry. Cuba’s state-run Habanos S.A. has struggled to maintain quality, not least due to overproduction in some years. Production fell 8 percent in 2009, when Cuba sold about 150 million cigars, worth US$306 million.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition