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Vol. 76/No. 43      November 26, 2012

Young farmers help boost
Cuba’s food production
Working people from city, countryside respond
to distribution of millions of acres of idle land
(feature article)
SAN ANTONIO DE LOS BAÑOS, Cuba—Farmers at the Vicente Pérez Noa cooperative here are part of a nationwide effort by Cuban working people and their revolutionary government to boost food production. The goal is to meet the population’s needs and become less dependent on costly food imports.

One of the Cuban government’s most substantial measures in recent years to confront this challenge has been the distribution of millions of acres of idle land—free—to anyone who will farm it. Since the adoption four years ago of Decree-Law 259, which authorized this move, tens of thousands of working people from the cities and the countryside have responded, including a significant number of young people.

To learn more about these efforts, Militant reporters visited the Vicente Pérez Noa cooperative, located in this town in Artemisa province 25 miles southwest of Havana.

“I wanted to make a contribution to producing food,” said Yuniel González Paneque, 29, president of the cooperative. He took over the farm from his grandfather.

The cooperative has been productive and growing, González noted. “In June 2010 we had 165 members—this year we have 190.” Of these, 34 farmers are younger than 35. Twenty-seven are women.

Forty-six became members after starting to farm abandoned land that was incorporated into the coop.

Since Decree-Law 259 was adopted in 2008, 194,000 Cubans have applied for land, of whom 173,000 received grants totaling more than 3.5 million acres across the island.

As long as they cultivate the land, individual farmers have the right to use it for 10 years, with the possibility of extending that term another 10 years. Cooperatives asking for additional land are given use of it for 25 years. In both cases if they cease to farm the land, they forfeit custody.

The initial measure approved in 2008 allowed an individual to apply for up to 33 acres, with a limit of 100 acres on the total size of their farm. Farmers could not pass this land to relatives or others.

The law was modified in July of this year in response to initial experiences and requests from farmers. Now individuals can request up to 165 acres, and can transfer land to family members or to others working the land with the farmer if the original title holder dies. Families are now permitted to build homes on the land as well.

Like all land in Cuba since the agrarian reform of the first years of the revolution, the land remains nationalized—it cannot be bought or sold as a commodity. The nationalization of the land is among the measures carried out by the revolutionary government that ended farmers’ debt slavery and guaranteed that Cuban peasants would not lose their land by being forced to sell their property to pay off debts or face foreclosure. It also resulted in a considerable improvement in the amount and quality of food consumed by urban workers in the country.

Youth working in agriculture

The visit to Vicente Pérez Noa was organized by the Union of Young Communists (UJC), the youth organization of the Cuban Communist Party, which has campaigned to convince greater numbers of young people to farm. Over the decades many in the countryside have migrated to the cities, especially young people attracted to the opportunities to take up professional occupations and office jobs.

“We can’t have a situation where there are more young people working as doctors or lawyers than in production,” said UJC leader Jorge Sutil, who met us at the coop. Sutil is the UJC National Bureau member responsible for work with young workers, farmers and soldiers.

“In 2008 the average age of those engaged in farming was over 50,” noted Mercedes Santana, National Bureau member of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). Santana also joined the discussions with the visitors, along with two local ANAP leaders, Yamila Sarduy of the Artemisa provincial bureau and Georgina Jiménez Pérez, president of the municipal ANAP in San Antonio de los Baños.

In recent years the average age of the agricultural workforce has come down somewhat. More than a quarter of the new farmers are 35 or younger, with little or no previous farming experience, according to Pedro Olivera, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Land Control Center, quoted in CubaDebate.

At the Vicente Pérez Noa cooperative, in addition to González Militant reporters met three other young farmers: Hendris Blanco and José Alberto Hernández, both 28, and Yendri Pérez, 24. All cooperative members under 35 meet as a group to take up the specific issues they face.

González is also an active member of the UJC. In 2010 he was chosen to be part of the Cuban delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students in South Africa, as was Sutil.

Sutil noted that the abundance of idle land in Cuba—more than 4.3 million acres at the start of the process—is to a large extent a consequence of the Special Period, the economic crisis of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba abruptly lost the bulk of its aid and 85 percent of its foreign trade. Agricultural production was decimated by shortages of imported fuel, fertilizer, insecticides, equipment and spare parts. Millions of acres of previously cultivated land were abandoned and overrun with a dense thorny bush called marabú.

Through the efforts of working people and their government, economic production, including in agriculture, has picked up from the most difficult period of the mid-1990s. But the economy remains marked by the consequences of the Special Period, compounded by the intensification of the five-decade-long U.S. economic embargo, and now the impact of the world capitalist economic crisis. These conditions exacerbate long-standing problems of centralized mismanagement and leadership challenges that reduce agricultural productivity and hobble food production and distribution.

A recent evaluation of the farm cooperatives known as Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) showed that of the 2,500 UBPCs established nearly 20 years ago, fewer than 2,000 remain, and of those, only 540 are “in a favorable economic and productive situation,” and have adequate leadership, Granma reported Sept. 11. Some 23 percent of UBPC land sits idle.

The UBPCs were abruptly created in 1993 at the height of the economic collapse of the Special Period. The vast state farms, the majority devoted to sugarcane, were broken into smaller production units and turned over to the workers on those farms to run. Unlike the large state farms, members of these cooperatives own the fruits of their labor and have more say over the use of the land and other resources. In practice, however, they often remained closely tied to state sugar and agricultural enterprises and subordinate to their decisions, Granma reported.

In August 2012, Cuba’s National Assembly approved a series of measures aimed at allowing the UBPCs to become more like the other agricultural cooperatives in Cuba, which are more independent of state bodies in making decisions. The goal is for UBPC members to take a greater role in the planning and control of production, and the distribution of revenues, according to Granma. Government subsidies to failing UBPCs will be ended and some 300 UBPCs deemed financially “unrecoverable” will be merged with others or dissolved, their lands made available for distribution.

Decentralizing local decisions

“The government has implemented other measures aimed at increasing production,” González said. “More agricultural decisions are being made at the municipal level rather than in offices of the Ministry of Agriculture at the provincial and national levels. Local stores that sell farm supplies and equipment have been established and cheap credit is available to buy these necessities.”

“My grandfather and I were able to get a loan of 50,000 pesos to tide us over while we got started,” said Hendris Blanco.

Such loans are needed “because it takes time before you get your first harvest,” González noted. “You have to clear the land of marabú and get the necessary supplies and equipment. And then you have to learn to farm productively.”

The government has also increased the prices paid to the farmers for their produce. González, who has 25 dairy cows and also raises beef cattle and pigs, is a beneficiary of the increased milk price.

“The state buys milk from us at 2.5 pesos per liter and sells it at 25 centavos per liter to consumers entitled to it on their ration cards—children under 7 and adults who need milk for medical reasons. That’s one of Cuba’s priorities—getting farmers to increase the supply of food while keeping prices down for the people.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what happens in capitalist countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, where food monopolies drive down prices paid to small farmers—sometimes making it impossible for them to meet their production costs—while increasing prices that working people pay in stores.

In all, the cooperative has 120 dairy cows, 100 bulls being raised for slaughter or sale, and 50 pigs.

Producing food for sales to state distribution agencies—to be sold to the population at subsidized prices—comes first when setting production plans for the year, said González.

“Once we’ve fulfilled our contracts with the state, we can make direct sales to the tourist sector—like hotels or restaurants—or take produce to the agricultural markets. Before, all food distribution was through the acopio,” he said, referring to the state warehousing and distribution system, “but now we can deliver our products directly.”

Farmers pay a 2 percent tax on sales to state-run agricultural markets, and 5 percent on other sales.

Vicente Pérez Noa is a Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS). In these, farm families work their own land individually but share credit facilities, equipment, services and help each other as needed. The other kind of farm coop created in the early years of the revolution is the Agricultural Production Cooperative (CPA), where members give up individual title to their land and work the entire spread jointly. Small farmers, most of them members of a CCS or CPA, account for more than half the food produced in Cuba, though two-thirds of cultivated land is farmed by the UBPCs and state farms.

The Vicente Pérez Noa, like other cooperatives in Cuba, is run by an executive board elected by its members. The membership meets regularly to discuss and decide on crops to be planted, expenditures and distribution of revenues, as well as to share experiences to help improve production.

All members of these cooperatives, including those who received land under Decree-Law 259, are members of ANAP, whose membership has increased by more than 50,000 since 2008. (UBPC members continue to belong to the National Sugar Workers Union, not ANAP.) The bulk of the new farmers have joined CCSs, whose area of cultivation is growing as a result of the measure.

Despite the measures being taken, food production in Cuba continues to fall far short of domestic needs, and working people are paying higher prices for the food they eat.

Only a small number of food items are available through the ration book which is being gradually eliminated. Through the libreta, as it is known, Cubans have been able to buy certain necessities at heavily subsidized prices. For many families, however, the monthly allotments last at most for a couple of weeks. Moreover, products are not always available in the state markets and quality is often poor.

As a result, millions of Cubans shop in the “agricultural markets,” where prices—set by supply and demand—are considerably higher. They also purchase food from street vendors, who buy products at the markets and resell them at higher prices from their carts.

“Black beans are 8 pesos a pound in state markets but 12 pesos from individual vendors,” a retired worker in Havana, José Martínez, told the Militant. “Cucumbers from private individuals are more than double the state market price. Guavas cost three times as much,” Martínez said.

The high prices paid to farmers for their products have resulted in growing class differentiation, with a layer of small farmers earning much more than other working people.

González, for example, said his anticipated net income this year will be half a million pesos. He employs three agricultural workers at 60 pesos a day. The average wage of a worker in Cuba is around 5,000 pesos annually, which is less than 20 pesos a day.

This situation has generated discussion and debate, and palpable tensions. Some workers are resentful of the wide income gap that has developed in recent years between these farmers and most Cubans. Others note that a bigger problem is the fact there has been a layer of quite wealthy working farmers for some time.

Asked what she thought, María Eugenia Arnet, 62, a production worker at the Labiofam bio chemical company in Havana, said she had no complaints. “Whatever makes more food available at lower prices is a good thing,” said Arnet, whose combined earnings from her wages and pension is about 7,000 pesos a year.

Some farmers, including González and Blanco, are dismissive of workers who say their wages are too low to afford the rising food prices. “They should do what we’re doing,” González said.

The outcome of the efforts to boost food production will weigh heavily in class relations over the coming years. But it will take time for changes to be felt. Agricultural production grew by just 2 percent in 2011. Currently some 80 percent of the food distributed through the ration book system is imported. Cuba’s dependency on imported food as a percentage of the total food consumption on the island, however, is less than 20 percent.

Rising prices on the world market drain resources from much-needed investments in basic infrastructure and equipment that would boost productivity. Food imports cost Cuba $1.4 billion in 2007 and rose to $1.5 billion in 2011. In 2008, following three hurricanes that devastated domestic crops, the food import bill soared to over $2.5 billion.

A real improvement in workers’ living standards and a reversal of an income differentiation that can over time put increasing strains on the alliance of Cuban workers and farmers is possible and sustainable only if there is a major rise in industrial as well as agricultural production.

Parallel efforts to involve young workers in boosting industrial production are also necessary, Sutil noted. But the possibility of turning around agriculture in the shorter term makes this the immediate priority, he said.

Róger Calero, Martín Koppel and Mary-Alice Waters contributed to this article.  
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