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Dispatch from organic island

Food, organic farms and jokes in Cuba


By Reese Erlich

Sixty-eight-year-old Fernando Funes looks rather unassuming in person. He stands five-feet-five-inches tall and wears frayed blue jeans and eyeglasses. He looks more like a community college teacher than the father of Cuba’s organic farming movement. Funes campaigned for organic farming in Cuba even before its widespread adoption in the early 1990s. And since then he’s become a hero to peasant farmers, agronomists, and government officials.

He also loves to tell jokes.

Funes asked if I had heard the one about a classified ad in the farmers’ newspaper. A peasant farmer in Las Tunas province wanted to get married. So he placed a classified ad: “Farmer, age 33, seeks wife, age 30–35, preferably with own tractor. P.S. Send photo of tractor.”

I was tempted to tell him my Jewish jokes but decided to wait until we knew each other better.

I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. and wandered around the darkened outskirts of Havana trying to find Funes’s house. He lived on the western edge of the city, not far from the Hemingway Marina. We were planning to drive to the city of Sancti Spíritus, where he was to be the keynote speaker at a conference of agronomists and farmers. Then we would spend some time interviewing organic growers.

After breakfast, we settled in for a four-hour drive. Funes explained that Cuba has become the largest organic farming experiment in the world. In the 1990s, Cuba could no longer afford to import most chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The entire island mobilized its scientists, farmers, and even the army to develop effective organic production. Significantly, Cuba didn’t face the market pressures that come with organic farming in capitalist countries.

In the U.S. and Europe, organic food has become, to a large extent, a niche market aimed at well-to-do shoppers concerned about health and the environment. In socialist Cuba, consumers pay the same price whether or not it’s organic. But wide-scale organic farming certainly presents problems. Insects and disease kill plants. Workers must be more knowledgeable.

Cuba faced a major question in the 2000s: can all-organic methods feed the nation or should Cuba rely at least partially on chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

Fernando Funes and I dug into this question by visiting Sancti Spíritus. But first we had to get there. If you plan to drive on Cuban freeways at night: don’t. There are no signs to indicate curves and few indicating freeway exits. There are plenty of large potholes and lots of fog.

Funes’ car cracked up on one of the infamous potholes once. It was in the shop for three weeks. “I call the body repair man,” Funes told me, “and he tells me they don’t have acetylene one day, and they ran out of metal parts the next.”

That, of course, reminds him of a joke. He asked if I knew the difference between socialist hell and capitalist hell. “No,” I said. “What’s the difference?” Funes says that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev dies and arrives in hell. The Devil tells him he has a choice of living in capitalist hell or socialist hell. “What’s the difference?” asks Gorbachev. The Devil says, “In capitalist hell we tie you to a stake, pour gasoline over you, and set you on fire. That continues throughout eternity.” “That sounds horrible,” Gorbachev says with a shudder. “What’s it like in socialist hell?” The Devil says, “The same.” “So what’s the difference?” asks an incredulous Gorbachev. “If I were you,” says the Devil leaning closer, “I’d choose socialist hell. Some days we have no gasoline. Other days we have no matches . . .”

As the sun rose and the fog lifted, we pulled into Sancti Spíritus. It’s a relatively small city with a population of about 135,000, a stopover on the road to the colonial city of Trinidad. We drove off the freeway and toward the local teacher’s college, where the agricultural conference was being held. Sancti Spíritus reminded me of the agricultural towns of central California, except Cuba still has horse-drawn carts. They compete with cars, bicycles, and motorcycles for control of the streets. For one peso (five cents), residents could traverse the whole city in horse-drawn jitneys.

We pulled into the teacher’s college parking lot, and officials quickly swarmed the car. Some 150 people had been waiting for Funes’s arrival. He quickly rushed into the auditorium and began his keynote address. The jocular, diminutive Funes transformed in front of his colleagues, becoming the famous agronomist. And I could see why he earned their respect.

In his speech, Funes placed Cuba’s agricultural problems within a world context. Developing countries around the world are facing food crises. Oil prices are up, partly due to the U.S. war in Iraq, he said. Global warming and water shortages are affecting farming everywhere. Capitalist countries are “converting agricultural land to develop biofuels, which is a big mistake.”

The Cuban government has decided not to convert sugar cane or other crops into ethanol, despite the potentially lucrative market, because of the disastrous environmental impact. “Industrial farming is the world model and also wastes a lot of energy, which the world can ill afford to lose,” said Funes. “By contrast Cuba is developing an alternative model of organic self-sufficiency.”

It’s not easy for any country to feed itself, let alone an island with limited resources and a hostile neighbor. Beginning in the early 1960s, the United States did everything possible to prevent Cuba from trading with Latin America and Western Europe. It even introduced biological warfare agents in an effort to destroy certain crops.

Cuban leaders turned to the Eastern Bloc and copied the Soviet agriculture model in which small farms were almost eliminated in favor of large, state operations, where a single crop was grown with heavy use of chemicals. Those policies contributed to the ecological devastation of parts of the USSR.

As the Soviet Union declined economically and stopped the subsidized trade, Cuba’s agriculture collapsed. Between 1989 and 1998, Cuban beef production dropped by nearly 50 percent because of the unsuitability of the cattle, the lack of feed grain, and the heavy use of bulls as draft animals. Daily caloric intake for the average Cuban dropped from 3,100 calories in the late 1980s to between 1,800 and 2,100 calories in 1993.
Out of necessity, Cuba began intense, nationwide organic farming in 1993. In the first few years, pests and disease caused horrific damage. Cuba’s vegetable production fell 34 percent from 1989 to 1994. But Cuba’s farmers kept trying. When the soil was properly prepared over time, and the crops were planted using pest-resistant methods, production came back. By late 1999, organic production in vegetables and tubers had returned to pre-1989 levels. By 2005, Cubans were back to eating an average of 3300 calories per day.

But many problems remained, as I found out in meeting with farmers. Funes and I drove out of Sancti Spíritus to a spread owned by organic farmer José Casimiro, known as a farmer philosopher because of his impassioned, and sometimes esoteric, declarations about the organic lifestyle. “We’ve embraced permaculture,” Casimiro told me. He explained that he tries to apply environmentally friendly methods and socialist ideals to everyday living. He promoted permanent, pro-environment culture. “It’s more than just organic growing. It goes to the sociology of the people. The women love the idea and participate in the farming.”

Casimiro showed off his land. Casimiro grew mango, yucca, and plantains—and raised dairy cattle—all without the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizer, or hormones. “The best result for me was learning how to grow naturally. We let weeds grow, but they repel some animals. We use compost as fertilizer. Instead of wooden fences, we have 5,200 meters of fence made from trees and plants. It’s called a “living fence.”

In the 1980s, 80 percent of Cuban food production came from state farms and 20 percent from small farms working with co-ops. By 2008, it was about 52 percent state farms and 48 percent small farms. Funes argued that small, diversified organic farms work far better than the state farms. “Integrated farms give you the possibility to produce many things together: animals, plants, and trees. For example, the animals give you milk and meat. And they supply dung in order to fertilize the plants.”

In the U.S., organic production can be expensive because of the high cost of manual labor. But in Cuba, labor is cheaper. Funes said that it’s more costly to use artificial fertilizers and other chemicals because Cuba must import them and pay in hard currency. “Oil costs have skyrocketed. All the inputs, such as machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides, require oil. They are very expensive.” Cuba’s economy has improved over the past few years. Tourism and nickel production have generated hard currency. The country can now afford to buy some chemical inputs. Santiago Yáñez, a Ministry of Agriculture official, supported organic farming but argued that the country must embrace whatever technology produces the most food.

Funes conceded that intensive use of chemicals can increase production in the short run. But it’s a long-term disaster. “Under the mono-cropping system, you put fertilizers on the land. The earth becomes inert. It becomes like a cement floor because it doesn’t have life. You don’t have birds around; nothing in the environment helps it live.”
Cuba has an inspection system for the nearly 4,000 organic gardens in the cities. But the island has no official certification system for all farms. Funes estimated that about 30 percent of Cuban farms are completely organic, 40 percent combine organic techniques with some chemical inputs, and 30 percent use mostly chemicals with few organic techniques.

Casimiro concedes that some farms in his area have gone back to partial use of chemicals. “To do organic farming, you have to be very knowledgeable. It’s much more complicated.”

A pattern is emerging in Cuban agriculture. Large-scale farming, such as sugar cane and citrus, tends to use chemicals. Small- and medium-sized farms grow tobacco, lettuce, and other vegetables using all organic methods. So what does this mean for Cuban consumers?

The Cuban government is trying hard to increase food production and lower prices. It has increasingly turned to Cuba’s 250,000 small farms and co-ops. To see how these reforms are working, I traveled west of Havana to the city of San Cristóbal.
Starting in 1993, the government began leasing out state farmland and other unused government land to individual farmers. Farmers could sell some of their produce to the state and the rest on the free market. The Barrera family in San Cristóbal directly benefited from these changes. I had first met the Barreras in 1992, when I produced a one-hour NPR documentary. Heading westward, I went from freeway to city street, to dirt road, to rutted dirt road, and finally to a very rutted, dirt road.

The Barrera house sits just outside the San Cristóbal city limit. Roosters crowed and pigs grunted in their pens a few feet from the house. We took a three-minute walk and found ourselves in lush, tropical fields where 85-year-old Fernando Barrera grew yucca and plantains. Like many of his generation, Barrera remained a staunch supporter of the Revolution. For all of today’s food shortages and other problems, he remembered life was much worse before 1959. His family has always owned this land, but they were hardscrabble farmers.

“We didn’t have piped water or electricity on our farm,” he told me. “The situation is much better today. We have access to many more things, even things like soap. We got a motor to pump water for our house.”

In the early ’90s, Barrera leased some extra land from a nearby state farm as part of the nationwide reform. It nearly doubled his acreage. He decided what to plant, then made an annual contract with the local government-sponsored co-op. “The co-op buys our products at fixed prices. All the prices are good. The co-op also provided transport to get the produce to market. Barrera’s standard of living had improved a lot since my 1992 visit, allowing him to expand his house, build new pig pens, and otherwise improve the property.

Raúl Ruiz, a Ministry of Agriculture official, told me that small farms have proven to be more productive for many types of food. “People are able to produce a big quantity of foodstuffs in small places. They are the owners of this production. The salaries and benefits are very high. This is good for the producer, and for the customer, too. The products are fresh, but prices are lower.”

That might seem obvious in a capitalist economy, but for socialist Cuba it’s a major conceptual breakthrough. For years Cuba had tried technical solutions, such as improved farming methods. But Ruiz says that wasn’t the problem. “Maybe it’s a social and political problem. You must open the market, open the land, the way a person can grow vegetables, products, and animals. Increasing the market may result in obtaining more products. It’s a political solution.”

 But allowing market flexibility in the context of a centralized socialist economy isn’t easy. The Cuban state owns the vast majority of farmland. Even privately owned farms can’t be bought and sold. This prevents land speculation, but it also means farmers can only pass their farms on to relatives after they die or trade them for another farm. Deputy Agriculture Minister Alcides López also said that co-ops will get more government credit and have greater leeway in what to plant and where to sell produce. These partial reforms have given rise to a debate in Cuba: how to increase food production without encouraging speculation and corruption.

In theory, socialism is supposed to eliminate those irrationalities and inequalities. Without multinational corporations, a socialist government should be able to provide lots of good-quality food at affordable prices. But it hasn’t worked out that way in Cuba. Why?
Beginning with Stalin’s government in the Soviet Union, traditional Marxists have preferred large state farms. Such agricultural enterprises were supposed to use the best scientific techniques to produce food and pay good wages to farm workers. A central plan would guarantee adequate production but not overproduction. That model was passed along to Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba.

I visited China for the first time in 1981. Some basic foods, such as rice, were in short supply. But within 10 years, after China dismantled the state farms and leased the land to peasant farmers, food production shot up. Whatever other very real problems China faces, it has largely overcome food shortages that had plagued the country for hundreds of years.

Cuban officials have shifted a lot of vegetable and meat production away from large state farms. But state farms continue to produce citrus, sugar cane, and other crops. Cuba would not be adopting all of the Chinese reforms, officials told me. They seemed prepared to muddle along with a mixed system of state farms and co-ops. Agricultural official Ruiz said, “Chinese culture is very different from Cuban culture. I don’t think you can make an extrapolation from the Chinese to the Cuban experience.” Ruiz pointed out that China’s success relied in part on foreign investment, which, so far, hasn’t come to Cuba on a large scale. “Everyone in the world wants to invest in China. That is not the case in Cuba. We have a shortage of investment. It’s hard to maintain development with our own resources.”

And that’s where the U.S. embargo enters the picture. In 2000, the United States started selling food to Cuba, but the terms were extremely harsh. The United States required Cuba to pay cash in advance, but prohibited Cuba from selling goods to the United States that could earn that cash. The Helms-Burton Act not only banned American investment in Cuba, but it also sought to prevent other countries from investing as well.
In 2007, Cuba spent $1.9 billion to import food, and the United States did everything possible to make sure Cuba doesn’t earn enough hard currency to pay for it. Agricultural Ministry official Santiago Yáñez said those policies hurt Cuba’s food supply. “We’re very close to the U.S. It makes sense to trade. Cuban products could easily ship to the U.S. The U.S. could invest here.”

Top agricultural officials admitted that, as of 2008, Cuba imported 50 percent of its total food supply. Ruiz said Cuba is not likely to be self-sufficient anytime soon. “We are trying to provide the foodstuffs at very low prices, trying to maintain the social equity. It is very difficult. I don’t think it will be achieved in a short time.”

Driving back from Sancti Spíritus to Havana during daylight hours, Fernando Funes and I made much better time. I got used to driving between two lanes, avoiding potholes, while hitting 80 miles per hour.

As the afternoon waned, I realized I had just spent two very intense days with Fernando. I felt it was time to tell him a Jewish joke. It’s an old joke, but I was sure it hadn’t made the rounds in Cuba. “Two old Jews are standing outside of a temple.” I said in my best Spanish. Fernando leaned forward with a critical ear.

I was, after all, going mano a mano with a champ. “I have a sad story to tell,” continued the old man. “My son, my only son, I gave him a good Jewish upbringing. He went to Hebrew school, had his bar mitzvah at age 13, and was confirmed at 16. Then he converted to Christianity.” “Funny thing you should mention it,” said the other old man. “My son, too. Let’s consult with the rabbi to get his advice.” They go inside the temple and tell their sad tales to the learned rabbi. “Funny thing you should mention it,” he said. “My son, too. Let’s us pray to G-d for guidance.”

They pray, bobbing back and forth in the davening motion of orthodox Jews. Suddenly, there’s a crack of lightening and an invisible hand rips the roof off the temple. A deep voice comes out of the heavens.
“Funny thing you should mention it . . .”

I finished the joke and there was dead silence. Neither Fernando nor his friend from the Dominican Republic said a word. Cuba is an atheist country, and I assumed Fernando was no practicing Catholic. But for a moment I feared that I had deeply offended some lingering Christian sensibility. Then an American traveling with us burst out in laughter, and said, “I get it. G-d is Jewish.” After a moment, both of the Latinos joined the uproarious laughter. They didn’t take the joke as an insult to their culture. They just didn’t get it.

Sometimes I think Cuban agricultural reform is the same. Cubans are trying to understand a new concept, and they just don’t get the joke, yet. But they will.

Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba 11 times beginning in 1968. As a freelancer, he reports regularly for National Public Radio, CBC Radio, ABC Radio (Australia), the Dallas Morning News and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Excerpted from a chapter of Dateline Havana, The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba, Polipoint Press, 2009. See

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