|About Ron Ridenour|
Volunteer Farm Work in Cuba 1992-2006
[January 2007, series of five published by Axisoflogic.com]
Showing up for work!
At the crack of dawn one humid July morning, I mounted my trusty iron
horse and pedaled off to La Julia in Batabano municipality, 50 kilometers
south of my Havana residence. I was on my way to participate in what
Che called that ”special atmosphere” of collective volunteer
“To build communism, you must build new man, as well as the economic base...the instrument for mobilizing the masses ... must be moral in character ... Work must cease being what it still is today, a compulsory social obligation, and be transformed into a social duty ... Our goal is that the individual feels the need to perform voluntary labor out of internal motivation, as well as because of the special atmosphere that exists.” (1)
A “Special Period” was declared by the State soon after the collapse of European state socialism. Cubans lost 63% of their foodstuffs, previously imported from Comecon trade partners. They also lost 85% of export income including oil-for-sugar barter trade.
Cuba’s leaders designated plan alimentario (food plan) as priority number one, alongside tourism. The state emphasizes becoming self-sufficient in many areas. Everybody’s belt had to be tightened.
After cycling without stop for two hours, a sign marked GIA-2 appeared on the flat horizon saturated with banana plants and vegetable crops. The camp looked like others I had just passed: white-painted, one-story concrete dormitory buildings neatly arranged in rows. Shrubs, flowers and garden vegetables grew between the buildings. In the distance, I could just make out the sea where I had sailed past Batabano on petroleum runs.
GIA-2’s director, Oscar Geerken, a handsome man in his mid-40s, led me to his cubicle where I’d be staying. It had four, two-tiered bunk beds, thin foam rubber mattresses and pillows. Two ventilators whirled overhead to cool the room and chase away persistent mosquitoes, Cuba’s only dangerous animal as Fidel was fond of saying.
“We built this camp ourselves with help from local constructors”, proudly proclaimed the mustachioed Oscar, “and we did it in just 29 days.”
Geerken was a chemistry teacher and school administrator, who had come here with the original 120 founders, in November 1990. He, like the others, would get his job back following two years of volunteer work, or even before if he quit earlier.
When I first arrived to work, in early 1992, there were 220 workers at Colonel Mambi Juan Delgado Contingent. Commonly called GIA-2, it received its official name after an officer who had rescued the cadaver of hero Antonio Maceo, a leading Cuban general killed in battle, in 1896.
At Home in GIA-2
The cubicles are divided by gender. In the front of cubicles housing
50 women was a space used for the polyclinic attended by a permanent
nurse or doctor. Most of the ailments are minor: machete cuts, colds,
asthma and hypertension. A new sugar cane-based pharmaceutical pill,
called PPG, is administered to regulate cholesterol for those with hypertension.
Its “magical” properties include the purported side-effect
of stimulating sexual drives, for which there is scant need in Cuba.
A recreation building across the courtyard is divided into two large rooms. One has two television sets at opposite ends so that viewers can choose between the nation?s two channels. The other room affords space for a ping-pong table and card tables for dominos, checkers and chess. These tables are cleared away for Saturday night dances. The recreation hall is brightly dotted with art works painted by volunteer worker-artists. Another building, quite long and divided by gender, contains toilets, wash basins and showers. Although the toilets are flushable, and even though there is a permanent cleaning staff, a putrid odor constantly lingers.
Corrugated laundry sinks are attached to the bathroom facilities. It is almost always the women who do the washing for male lovers or friends. Because they do the washing women go to the front of the chow line. The only complaint one hears about gender arrangements is that contingent policy makes it difficult to copulate because the sexes cannot be together in cubicles. Violators can be fired.
" We can't afford to have domestic relations spill over into collective quarrels, or cause people to get up late for work. Some would object on moral grounds as well. But people find ways to link up," Geerken smilingly explained from first-hand experience.
We entered the brightly decorated cafeteria and were handed metal trays heaped with moros y cristianos (beans and rice, named after dark-skinned Moors and white Christians), steaming bean soup, hot dogs, a sweet made from freshly picked egg plant, and soda. The menu on the wall announced cod fish for dinner. Cod is caught by Cuban fishermen in far away colder waters. Breakfast is usually the same: hot milk and coffee with a piece of hard bread. Breakfast and dinner are free of charge; lunch costs .50 centavos.
After a two-hour lunch break, Geerken introduced me to the head of finca 13, the 73-hectare banana plantation. Oscar Rodriguez is a history and philosophy professor. The brigade assigned to initiate the banana plantation elected him their chief because he was the only man here raised on a farm who also had some knowledge of growing bananas.
By working in the plantation during several visits over a four-year
period, I learned some of the mysteries of growing this beautiful, tasty
and utilitarian fruit. It is also one of the few fruits to which the
stomach takes easily when in uproar. The plant itself can be used for
many things: food for work animals, protection from sunshine, for roasting
meat; and its fibers are used for textiles.
Entering the mature plantation in the early morning dew is a venerate experience. The shadowy silence and fresh moisture embraces and comforts. Under the tall fruit banana and shorter burro banana trees, the sun does not penetrate to human height and fronds protect one from rain. All is green and tranquil.
My adrenalin churns as I scout for the marked bananas. A technician has designated which ones are ready to cut. Some trees have fallen from the force of the last cyclone. A combination of heavy winds and the nematodos virus had wiped out a section of the plantation. A few cords were snapped and some overhead wires were broken but GIA-2 got off lucky this time. Cutting banana bunches is heavy work yet also fun. One holds the bunch with one arm and swings the short machete at the top of the trunk with the other. When the bunch falls onto one?s chest, one swings at the vine just above the bunch to cut off the tree top. The worker then carries the 30 to 40-kilo bunch to the "street" (a series of rows) where the oxen cart passes by. Another man will load them and cover the fruit with fronds to protect them from the hot sun. Sometimes the bunch is dumped gently into the cart by the cutter if the oxen are passing by.
Dripping sap stains clothes and the body. Yet the same plant produces a watery liquid that washes away body stains. At the day?s end, we dip our fingers in the liquid where trunk layers turn brown. These juices clean the sap stains.
Oxen, mud, critters and steel wheels: The cyclone had left the earth muddy and the oxen yoke got stuck in a dip, and the cart couldn't budge. The driver was working Contrario and Asabache. He couldn't convince them to budge despite using the flimsy whip. He called for Nelson. When the tall young man arrived, he set his jaws tight and struck one beast's ticklish ribs with his fist. Contrario (obstinate) stepped sidewise. Nelson wanted him to step forward. He slapped Contrario's rear with the flat of his machete and threw dirt into the animal's mouth--"To dry the foam and get rid of his agitation by giving him a new one," Nelson explained. The beast plunged forward and with Asabache pulled the heavy cart out of the mud.
In the 1980s Cuba had more tractors per acre than California for food production. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and under the heel of the U.S. embargo they lacked the petroleum to use them. Cuba heroically responded by growing crops with the use of oxen as part of their appropriate technology program. They had about 50,000 teams left in 1990. By the year 2000, they had over 400,000 teams of oxen plying the land.
After we cut the marked bunches, our team was set to dig new holes
for the chopos (pods of young plants). The rains had left the earth
so muddy it was difficult to hoe. My clothes and body quickly caked
with mud. It rained again and we slid and slipped. After a while the
rain and mud didn't matter but the biting insects did: mosquitoes, ants
and gegen, a gnat-like fly that bites likes horseflies. Once the green
plant is cut, the chopos smell like fresh rubber and attract a tiny
black ant whose bite stings for minutes.
I walked alongside a yoke, careful not to get too close to the oxen's thick hooves, catching the pods from a female worker, who threw them from the slow-moving cart. I placed the chopos on the earth two meters apart. After seeding a dozen rows, we hoed and topped the pods with loose soil.
Working with women can either slow down production, due to inevitable flirtation and different gender capacities, or sometimes speed it up, because the men like to show off and women often sing stimulating songs. Love songs and swinging hips induce faster work motions as a distraction to rising passions.
The next day, I sat beside a tractor driver. I was shocked to watch a dozen mature banana trees get rudely eliminated by the monster as its steel assortments ruined bunches or felled plants because of the driver's reckless driving. This experience made it clear to me that using oxen and hand-work with machetes is more respectful of nature?s gifts, although perhaps not as economically efficient since hand-work is much slower than machinery.
I got off this mechanical brute and cut dried trunk leaves with the short-bladed machete. Once the inner sides are exposed, one can often find a tiny frog therein. It is a slimy but harmless, cute creature that incomprehensively frightens most Cuban women and some men.
Bounty and good banana health
Cuba still employs chemical sprays against plant diseases even under the special period limitations and with heightened ecological awareness. Sigatoka (sugar cane rust) spreads so rapidly and is so lethal to crops that airplanes are used to spray nauseating, imported chemicals. Fumigating new sprouts of weeds growing close to plants is a constant, tedious task of brigaders, who apply the Belgian-made Monsanto herbicide from a tank carried on their backs. The instructions call for extreme caution and use of goggles, though this is generally ignored.
The natural fungus, verticullium lecani, is used against the ruinous white fly, which attacks fronds, although many farmers still use the ancient method of mixing tobacco leaf leftovers with water as a harmless but time-consuming way of combating the white fly. Another fungus, trichoderma, is used effectively against injurious fungi in other crops. Even the lion ant is helpful against some plagues. It will be a long time, however, before biological methods will replace the need for the unfavorable chemicals to control farmers' many menaces.
Finca 13 is comprised of 150,000 "silk" banana trees surrounded by two rows of the protective, sturdy burro plants, whose squatty banana is cooked green in a variety of dishes: boiled, mashed, roasted and fried. The silk banana is eaten raw, as are other types. The special period's food plan stresses planting a few types of bananas least susceptible to plagues.
Once the banana plant matures, it sprouts a large purple bud popularly known as a "tit". The tit weighs half-a-kilo and is half-a-meter long. They droop heavily from pendulous stalks. Tit bracts easily roll back to expose a glossy silk-like lining. Beneath each bract lay overlapping rows of cream-colored, unisex flowers from which emanates a perfume fragrance. First to appear on the tit's corded spike is several rows of female flowers, whose ovaries develop into "hands" of bananas.
" We used to cultivate only one crop a year," Rodriguez told me, "and our banana production was way under demand. There were so many plagues, so many resources and so much attention required that we never caught up with demand. With new technology and increased manpower we'll soon have enough bananas to eat.
" Just imagine, if we'd been planting enough of our own food all along we wouldn't have such significant economic problems now that the Comecon is gone. We made a grave error relying on foreign friends to feed us, but we're correcting that now."
The new technology being employed includes the Israel-developed microjet irrigation system. Israel uses this for growing citrus fruits in deserts, and Cuba is importing the system from France for use in banana plantations as well as citrus crops. The microjet is one of Fidel's pet projects, along with PPG pill production for export. He predicted that within a few years of installing the effective watering system yields would quadruple and bunches would produce a score of hands weighing up to 70 kilos. After two years of microjet usage, yields had increased and bunches had grown in size and weight but the objective was still off mark, and the system is expensive.
Another day I was cultivating vegetables with Gildy, a dynamic 22-year old former factory worker. She had suddenly found herself out of work when the radio assembly plant where she worked reduced its labor force. She went to the municipal labor office and they suggested she try the farm contingent.
" This is secure work and I get double my previous pay. The food is better than you get in the city on rations, and all the essentials are provided. And I feel useful, so it still appeals to me after a year," Gildy told me.
" Because of our natural amiability, we have no real social problems here, other than a bit of jealousy from time to time. But that happens wherever men and women live and work together."
Near quitting time workers rushed excitedly from the field shouting, "Fidel is coming! Fidel! Vive Fidel!"
Three black Mercedes limosines sped by. A blue mini-van filled with armed security men drove at either end. Fidel didn't stop this time; he had visited GIA-2 recently.
Down with Cuban Soul on Saturday Night!
Women had decorated the recreation hall and prepared snacks of salad, toasted bread and fried burro bananas. Some men had gone off to find draught rum at the state liquor counter-store. As expected, the store was out of the national alcohol. Tonight was special, so the men scurried about to find black market rum at double the price. Contingent Colonel Mambi Juan Delgado's own band, the "Microjets", was performing for the first time.
Muscular banana workers dressed up in spick and span white clothing beat out sensual rhythms on congos, drums, trumpets, vibes, organ and clave sticks as other brigaders gyrated to salsa and humped to son (Cuban soul) music. The women were sexily decked out in revealing clothing and inexpensive but sparkling jewelry. Some of them could have been models or Tropicana dancers.
We listened to music and danced until past midnight. No matter the late hour or the amount of booze, everyone would be up at 05:50 AM. Awakened by music blaring out from the camp radio, we would all fall out for the morning assembly (matutino), partaking in participatory democracy before our labor began.
"A contingent without a matutino is not a contingent," wrote the Cuban journalist, Clemente, who once worked there when I did.
The leadership informs workers at these daily assemblies what agricultural developments are taking place. The previous day's work is quickly evaluated, and the current day's tasks are outlined. The floor is then opened for questions and comments. At the end of this interchange, lasting between 15 and 30 minutes, the destacados (distinguished workers), chosen by all workers, are announced. Bonuses or vacations are awarded every few months to those most frequently chosen destacado.
At this matutino, Geerken explained that he'd been to the Ministry of Internal Commerce to see about sorely needed work clothing. Many workers had holes in their work shoes not to mention tattered shirts and pants. A few did not even have work shoes. Socks were a rarity.
" We know that most textile factories are shut down and the ministry has few reserves. They told me they'd soon be distributing some shoes but they couldn't say when."
A cloudy look fell over most faces yet no one spoke. They knew this was the truth and there was nothing that could be said. But Big Roberto spoke up after the general production chief, Jose Aguero, said that Brigade 8 was behind in planting potatoes and would have to speed up.
"Give us more hands," Big Roberto retorted. "Finca 13 is overstaffed and we are undermanned."
No one contradicted this assessment so Aguero shifted part of the banana personnel over to potatoes for a while. Someone held up a tooth brush and a towel. "Did anyone leave these in the bathroom?" A man raised his hand and gladly took the hard-to-replace items. It was time to go to work.
Scarcity and its Cousin Crime
Crime increases wherever food scarcity exists. Cuba is no different. With the generalized scracity of goods and special period cutbacks, morality becomes shaky. Crime had soared so alarmingly that the Communist party took the issue up publicly. Stealing had become so common, especially food meant for common distribution, that stealing was not considered as such but simply seen as "resolving a problem".
It had become customary for passer-byers to take what they could from the fields, and many farm workers did likewise. After the first year of the special period, the vice-minister of agriculture reported that an estimated two million chickens had been robbed from aviaries, double the number the previous year.
Guards were now posted in farm areas. In the beginning only two guards patrolled GIA-2 at night. After crops began to disappear and the first ox was slaughtered and carted away, the number of guards increased to 16. They took turns patrolling around the clock. Production was affected with this loss of 16 workers. At first, guards carried loaded rifles or shotguns but after the first thief was shot by a working guard, authorities took the bullets away. The shooting death occurred in another province and the local people believed it was unnecessary punishment. The fact that local and national authorities listened and responded in kind was an encouraging sign for democracy and humanistic tolerance about punishment.
Armed or not, guards could not keep banana bunches from disappearing from our plantation. Every once in a while, clothing and precious soap were taken too. The worst theft was that of a brand new Chinese bicycle. Pedro had left his bicycle in his cubicle without locking it. When he returned from working the tomato field it was missing. Geerken suspected someone and confronted that person. At first denying responsibility, the suspect admitted his deed after Geerken threatened to summon the police to check his family's house where, in fact, he had stashed the bicycle. Our disciplinary committee voted unanimously for his expulsion. A report of his deed was written, which would follow him to his next place of employment. The committee voted not to recommend a trial, which could have resulted in a jail sentence.
Personnel turnover was another destabilizing problem. Of the original 120 founders, nearly 100 stuck out their two year commitment. But those who came after the initial period were not so consequential. Several hundred volunteers had come and gone in the second two-year period. Nevertheless, general performance and production levels were among the very best of these volunteer collectives. Aguero tried to make sense of this apparent contradiction.
"The majority leave simply because the work is too hard and the sun too hot. A few leave because they would prefer another task than the one they were assigned. Some leave because of illness or family troubles. Married couples split up because so much time away from one another is a drain on the relationship. My own marriage is on rocky terrain.
"A few leave because they weren't real volunteers," Aguero continued. "Not many, but some have been encouraged to come because they had no other work or this was a condition for parole from prison. About 100 have been booted out because of bad behavior: excessive drunkedness leading to anti-social behavior; slapping women about and similar acts of violence; a couple cases of thievery, and a few for having sexual relations in cubicles. Leadership here is strict but not rigid or formalistic. We are strict enough to get the job done and win a few `best´ awards."
Batabano's state vegetable and fruit farms are a microcosm of government-run collective farms the nation over. In an interview with the party-appointed municipal agricultural director, Aldolfo Montalvo, he told me frankly how farming had been developing.
Before the special period and the food plan this agricultural zone was cultivated by 105 permanent farm workers, supplemented, like all other farms, by school children, who are hardly proficient. Now, we've got more hands than we ever dreamed. The permanent force is 150 and they have received a wage hike. They are re-enforced by about 2,000 volunteers who commit themselves for from 15 days to two years. These are mainly adults who come from cities. At peak times, we are sent soldiers as extra hands. Most soldiers assist in agricultural throughout the nation and the army has its own farms, which produce most of the soliders' food.
"Like all other areas we have received more fertilizers, herbicides, farm equipment, and oxen in substitute for less petroleum."
The area's 200 caballerias (8000 hectares) yield has doubled to 20,000 tons in this new period. GIA-2 with 900 hectares of land is more than ten percent of the land in use.
"There is no doubt that we are spending more money than is cost efficient for the increased production. Nor do I foresee a break-even point in the near future. However, right now we are most concerned about feeding the entire city and province of Havana."
1. Excerpted from speeches Che gave to workers as the Minister of Industry, taken from "Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution", seven volumes published in Havana by Editorial Ministerio de Azucar.
Second in series
[Editor's Note: This is the second installment in Ron Ridenour's wonderful series on his volunteer farm work in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union which left Cuba in dire economic straits. The response of the Cuban people to their devastating losses at that time are not only creative and resourceful, but downright exemplary and inspiring. Les Blough, Editor]
Batabano's Farm production director, Aldolfo Montalvo, and Contingente Col. Mambi Juan Delgado overall leader biggest headache in achieving the huge and new task of feeding much of the province of Havana was distributing the harvests before they wasted away.
I attended the first national assembly meeting in Havana concerning the progress of plan alimentario, in which distribution was discussed. Candido Palmero, the chief of Contingente Blas Roca, one of the most distinguished contingents, delivered a report to the nation's leaders. Palmero had recently been named head of all the new agricultural contingents. He told the deputies that the contingents could guarantee the production goals for next year but there was one major problem. The large calloused-handed man paused. He and Fidel looked at one other from across the large hall. The president gestured for Candido to continue.
" What I can't guarantee is that you will eat all the harvested crops, because we don't have our own trucks to distribute the goods."
Palmero now spoke to a hushed assembly. "We recommend that farm-workers should have the responsibility, the authority and the means to do the entire job, from breaking ground to delivery."
Fidel enthusiastically agreed and so did the deputies, who decided that each state farm would get its own transportation to delivery production. This would first be tried in Havana's fifteen municipalities. The bureaucratic distribution system is a centralized one in which all harvests are transported to central markets, called Acopios, where they are unloaded. Smaller distribution trucks are then assigned to load the products again and distribute them to smaller neighborhood markets. This process is almost never carried out in a timely fashion. The double work of loading and unloading, and transporting results in constant losses of edible foods.
In 1993, Defense Minister Raul Castro said that the Farming Production Cooperatives (CPA) were six times more effective than the state collectives. CPAs had been formed in the 1960s as cooperatives of private farmers, owners and usufructaries. Members share in profits from sales and can hire day laborers at peak times. State farm workers received fix wages regardless of production quantity or quality. Ra?l proposed that most of the granjas, which held 80% of agricultural lands (four million hectares), be transformed into new usufruct cooperatives with some CPA benefits.
The government then established a new cooperative structure, Basic Unit of Co-operative Production-UBPC, "to simulate greater production".
Key features of the new UBPC decree-law 142 are:
• Co-operative members have full use of the land without owning it?unlike CPAs where co-operators are full owners.
• UBPC members are owners of production, like the CPAs, in that they are free to work and organize as they choose but must sell their produce to the state at agreed upon prices.
• Farm equipment, seed, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, petroleum, parts, irrigation and other supplies are provided by the state on credit.
• Labor is paid, in part, by profit-sharing. The state advances an average monthly wage and capital to get started. Credit is repaid from the sale of harvests.
• UBPCs must be cost-accountable, profitable enterprises.
• UBPC members elect their leadership, which is subject to recall. Worker leadership represents all workers before state managers and state investors.
These changes were introduced after state leaders had studied the CPAs relationships to their land and their style of work. They learned that not only are CPAs better producers, in quantity and quality, than state collectivists but that these workers are more pleased with their work and daily lives. They also earn more money than collectivists. State leaders did not say, however, why they had decided not to sell the land to UBPC users. This does not coincide with the conclusion that a major incentive for CPA co-operators is their ownership status. But the man-on-the-street knows that the party leadership hopes that with a more stimulating work life, and thus improvements in the food economy, Cubans will learn that private ownership of land is not necessary for a decent economic life.
Once the UBPCs established themselves, most contingent members returned to their waiting city jobs. Some did remain on the restructured farms. They were joined by traditional collective farm workers and other country folk from eastern provinces.
Two years following the decision to change the production structure, the entrenched bureaucracy had not adequately changed the transportation system.
During one of my volunteer periods at GIA-2, I encouraged Cuban reporter Clemente to ride on a distribution truck and describe his experience in an article. His newspaper printed portions of his article. What went unpublished was quite revealing. Clemente had written that some bananas were sold illegally on route and at the market place. About 1,400 pounds of the 30 to 32,000 pounds of bananas loaded at the field never reached the targeted consumers. Some 50 warehouse workers remained sitting on their hands for a long time after we pulled up with the truck, delaying the unloading process. Nor did Clemente's observation appear that there were about 2,000 pounds lost to "scale discrepancies".
My own random investigation into wastes at my local market revealed 128 boxes of rotten mangoes (5,760 pounds) out of a total of 553 boxes delivered two days before. The store manager and accountant told me this was "normal". They said they can reject overripe or bruised produce but they can't physically check each box upon arrival. "Furthermore, who wins if the markets don't accept produce they can't sell?" asked the accountant rhetorically. "If the trucker has to return the produce it just goes to waste anyway."
Back on the farm
" Guajiro" country music whines atonally like the hillbilly twang of the un-neighborly northern neighbor. Radio Rebelde plays it full blast at 05:50 a.m. Though the singing is shrill and the guitar sounds squeaky, the message is aimed at stirring awake.
Edgardo slowly lifts an acrylic blanket from his face and swings his legs over the lower bunk bed. He lumbers out into the star-lit morning and over to his wife's cubicle. Guillermina embraces him and hands over the empty beer cans for him to fill with their breakfast--a mixture of powdered milk and cereal--at the dining hall.
The middle-aged couple had left their grown children in Santiago de Cuba to seek new horizons. Edgardo Rochet had a maintenance job at a secondary school where Guillermina Montero was a school cook. They had been here six months when I met them, in 1994.
The Col. Mambi Juan Delgado Contingent had been recently converted into the new type state farm cooperative, a UBC, and renamed Jose A. Fernandez cooperative, after a local martyr. Most people still referred to it by its original collective nomenclature: GIA-2. The workers still till over 850 hectares of bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage and tomatoes, but they now plant 26 hectares in vegetables for co-operative consumption, hoping this will be one incentive to keep people here for good.
The new state cooperatives no longer rely on volunteers and they have reorganized many of the previous collectives to approximate the agricultural production co-operatives (CPA), which traditionally have comprised twelve percent of farm land. The state collectives had comprised 80 percent of farm land; some of this land is being converted into UBPCs.
The rest of Cuba's cultivated land, eight percent, is owned by 75,000 small private farmers. Most had formed the National Association of Small Farmers/ANAP in the mid-60s. Private farmers can own no more than 65 hectares. No land can be sold privately but can be passed down if the inheritors have lived on the land before the owner's death.
Ever since the special period began, the nation's leadership had been criticizing the state organized collectives for under-producing. Both private and cooperative farms, and the army itself, have been better farmers, and the quality and diversity of food grown has also been better.
This Cuban farmer working an ox is not Edgardo
I find Edgardo plowing with his assigned steel-tracked Russian tractor,
which must be pull-started by one of the few vehicles here with a functioning
battery. The red, open cab is roofed with empty Dutch Desire potato
sacks. Cuba imports this brand and Canadian potatoes as seed.
We bounce over rough earth while flights of herons glide down behind Edgardo on the newly formed rows. The "farmers' friends" line up like snow-white sentries surveying for mice, which they devour.
After a couple hours plowing, we stop to replace a broken bolt. It takes another driver an hour to fetch one, all the while the motor is wasting gasoline because Edgardo is worried he can't get it started again if he shuts it off.
" I like the co-operative idea," Edgardo says. "We feel more connected to the soil, to our product. We eat our own produce. But there are still problems of discipline, bureaucratic slowness and lack of sufficient resources.
" The revolution has been too generous and too paternalistic. We've got to learn to produce what we need to, what we should," the Angola war veteran muses. "Too many people are here only for the material benefits, like soap and 15 packs of cigarettes a month", compared to only four on the ration card.
Edgardo gazes off into the savana. One half-expects giraffes to appear through the semi-tropical grassland. The only animals here, however, are oxen. The flat land is dotted with avenues of stately royal palms swaying splendprously erect.
A job for blue jeans
I walk over to my favorite banana jungle and talk with Noel Perez.
Just 17 years old, Noel moved here from his parents' comfortable home
outside Havana six months ago. He tells me why.
" I decided to work in agriculture to help produce the nation's food, and for my own independence. I also earn more here than at my last city job. I am saving to buy blue jeans. Then I can look smart and go out dancing," Noel says, his eyes sparkling.
There is no longer guaranteed adequate clothing on the rations. It will take Noel all his earnings over four months to buy his imported "dream pants", which he will probably buy on the black market. But Noel doesn't care. He looks forward to impressing his friends and, perhaps, a girl.
Noel associates with other youths recently moved here. They stop work when they want and sometimes sneak a drink of moonshine rum amidst the plantation's shadows.
Near where Noel is spreading chemical fertilizer are one hundred 12 to 15-year olds picking weeds and pulling up carrots, just like Noel did for one month each year of junior high school. The study and work program, initiated shortly after the Revolutionary victory, still aims to teach youth where their food comes from, and give them a sense of identity with workers. The kids also enjoy the freedom of being away from home and the social life at their rural school close to GIA-2.
Zestful grandmother farmer
I find Guillermina in another part of the banana plantation brushing dried leaves away from the microjet tubings with her machete blade. This zestful grandmother moves at a rapid pace, pausing sporadically to secure or replace a broken sprinkler tip and cut dried parts of the trunk leaves.
Guillermina and Edgardo were raised on farms and are glad to be back in the fields. She recounts her past during breaks, which she liberally takes.
" I was born in the east, alongside Cuba's tallest mountain, Turquino. My father was a peasant, a strong man who fathered 22 or 23 children; 17 by my mother. He went to the mountains to fight with Fidel," she says proudly.
"The revolution gave me everything. Without Fidel I don't know what would have happened. He unites us. I wish the United States would stop its blockade and conduct their own revolution like ours, and then we could all live fraternally," she dreams aloud.
"My kids are grown now. One has a baby. So I decided to seek adventure, to start anew. We grandparents left our house to our children. This way we can help the nation get more food, and we can earn more money and get our own house here."
When the state devised the self-sufficiency Food Plan, it announced that it would build 44 communities in Havana province, providing 12,000 residences to the farm-workers, plus thousands more elsewhere in the countryside. The government knew that petroleum to run construction vehicles and machinery would be scarce but with typical Cuban optimism it embellished on real possibilities. The gap between desire and reality resulted in many volunteer workers unwilling returning to their city homes and jobs. Two years after the planned deadline not one community had been completed. Only 50 residences had been finished in this province, of the 12,000 announced, and 7,000 in other provinces.
A small, two-story building stands within sight of the dining hall, the first six flats out of the 400 promised at Jose A. Fernandez UBPC. A genuinely elected workers' commission decided on the six "most distinguished workers" from 40 applicants for the flats. The commission's proposal was voted on by the entire workers' assembly.
Mileydis Casanova, a 28-year old mother and wife of another cooperativist, is the proud owner of one of the more or less attractive, three-bedroom apartments. Her husband, 30 year-old Rolando Fajardo, was often elected as one of the most distinguished. The terms for buying the house are extremely liberal. The two pay a combined ten percent of their wages for 12 years. As long as they stay on this farm the house is theirs. Once the last payment is made, the house is theirs regardless of where they work. The state also sells them furniture, a refrigerator and a small kerosene-burning, two-plate stove all at cost and paid for on time plan. These are the normal terms for new housing going up in the farmlands. In a few special cases, there are no costs to the workers if they stay on and produce well. When there are house payments, they normally range from 10 to 20 years. The state, as in all housing construction and sales, takes no profit, but only recuperates the actual construction costs.
Edgardo and Guillermina hope to be among those homeowners soon, but founding members of the contingent have preference.
At noon, Edgardo and Guillermina eat a basic hot lunch together and chat with me.
"We are one culture with one identity," Guillermina explains when questioned if race is an issue in Cuba. Her complexion matches her man's cinnamon-colored face, which is topped with kinky black hair.
" Black Cubans, or mulattos, do not identify much with blacks in other countries. We have come a long, long way from the days of my parents. They told me how they were treated before the revolution. My mother was a maid for a rich family for a while; my father a chauffeur. They couldn't do many of things or go to many of the places that whites could. Today, it would never occur to any of us that we couldn't do this or that or live here or there because of differences in color. Racism no longer exists, not in practice."
While blacks are not discriminated against, Cuban women have not yet gained full equality despite constitutional guarantees. Guillermina recently experienced this dichotomy when a male co-worker suggested that she take over the important responsibility of running the water pump he had been charged with. She was pleased by his confidence but the UBPC leadership turned her down on the grounds that it wasn't "women?s work". The all-male executive was concerned that constantly working in water would harm "womens' works", especially during menstruation. The camp doctor and nurse, both women in their twenties, considered that notion to be "an old wives' tale". However neither they nor the women's brigade leader demanded any changes because, they said, "No woman had insisted on her equal rights".
That evening Guillermina changed from sweaty work clothes into a white, flowered dress and plastic decoration in her natty black hair. She was going out to dinner. "Out" was just 25 meters from her cubicle to the dinning hall. She sat with a dozen men, all chosen by their brigades as the distinguished workers for the past two-week period. Edgardo was not with his wife as he had been chosen before.
The distinguished workers ate at table-clothed tables. They had the general dinner of rice and beans, sweet potato and thin soup, plus chicken for the occasion. The expected rum and desert were absent, however, and food preparation lacked "a loving touch", Guillermina lamented.
Guillermina and Edgardo spend much of their free time watching TV or playing checkers. He is also a good chess player, and she likes to smack a volley ball with men and a few other scrappy women. The couple's sex life has suffered since arriving at the co-operative. The contingent rules against chatting in each other's rooms had been relaxed but cohabitating at the camp was still forbidden on pain of expulsion.
" It's uncomfortable without our normal sex life," Edgardo says timidly, "but I won't take my woman down on the ground or in one of those concrete water-pump platforms like many do. I feel it demeans the woman and the act of love-making."
They prefer to wait for their three-day passes every second weekend. Then they travel to Old Havana where they can be alone in a relative's apartment. They sometimes miss those weekends, however, because they often choose to work extra weekends for the pay and because transportation is so discouraging.
Guillermina, though, feels that, "Waiting too long is just too much. Sometimes I look at Edgardo and say, 'How long can a woman wait?'"
Entwined in each others arms, Guillermina and Edgardo huddle under a blanket to fend off winter's wind wheezing through un-shuttered port-like window holes. Alongside others, the couple watch the Sunday matinee movie on TV, "Memories of the Invisible Man".
BATTLE FOR FOOD
Third in series
Editor's Note: They read like chapters in a living novel, but Ron Ridenour's stories in his wonderful series on his experiences as a volunteer farm worker in Cuba are not fiction. This is the third of his five stories in this uncompromising series. We appreciate that he does not shy from describing Cuba's problems and also his warm telling of the personal and national triumphs of a small nation that continues to stand tall for its independence and sovereignty. Ron's true stories record the amazing resilience of Real Cubans who marshal their resources to work the land, advance the Cuban revolution and survive the brutal U.S. embargo and collapse of the Soviet Union. Les Blough, Editor
Bill's bicycle whisked through city traffic, mounted the first countryside hill and glided to La Julia in Batabano municipality.
I cycled the 50 kilometers by noon so intent was I on taking a break from noisy Havana and the many Yankee T-shirt-clad unconscionable people. I especially looked forward to revisiting the farm where I had often volunteered in the first half of the 1990s.
GIA-2 was the state collective (granja) nomenclature before it became Colonel Mambi Juan Delgado contingente, later changed to the Jos? A Fern?ndez UBPC (Basic Units of Production Cooperation) cooperative.
Hungry farmers milled before the camp kitchen. Benito, the tall lanky Microjet drummer, approached me. Microjet was the irrigating system, hoses fixed in the air or on the ground from which comes a fine spray. Benito had been a contingent member, who had formed the Microjet band with other volunteers.
"The Microjets are gone, Ron. I'm the only one remaining. But others you knew are still here and most have their houses. I'm way down on the list since I am single. But Edgardo and Guillermina got theirs.
" The camp is improved. We are fewer here now so we can share a room with only one person instead of six. And we got rid of that fucking sex restriction. Now we can have a woman in bed," old Benito grinned.
I biked the kilometer to the concrete-block housing compound, which I witnessed when the first four houses were under construction. As I gazed at the identical grey structures, a woman walked out of one. Despite her sombrero, I recognized the muscular Guillermina Montero. Her face lit up when she saw me. After embracing, we walked into her house to see her husband, Edgardo Rochet.
Most workers have their own houses now, and those who have no longer eat at the camp cafeteria. If they do eat there, a meal costs 50 centavos. Guillermina and Edgardo insisted I stay with them. They have plenty of space: four rooms, bathroom and kitchen. Since they live alone, one room is used to store fresh harvested foods and three unused bicycles, all lacking tires and tubes, "which cannot be found", lamented Edgardo.
Their kitchen is charred black from an accident with the kerosene cooking apparatus.
" We should use gas but it is not as available as is kerosene. We are all to get the new electric plates this month, and then I'll `find´ some paint to brighten up the kitchen," Edgardo said.
"The state says it will be making refrigerators available to us also," interjected Guillermina enthusiastically. "We haven't had one for years since ours broke down and there were no parts."
The bathroom light burns constantly because of a broken fixture, which will soon be replaced with the new energy-saving filaments and bulbs. The sink is broken. More often than not there is no running water for showering or flushing the toilet. Buckets are kept filled for both functions. The residential compound gets its water from the well at the nearby countryside school, but there are no set times for water flow. Since many of the couples both work, it is often a house-wife neighbor who fills up empty buckets for others.
The living room is the centre of attention, because of the Chinese Atec-Panda television set, which Guillermina "won" for being voted destacada (distinguished) worker many times. She is paying half price (4000 pesos) on a three-year time plan without interest. Her average wage is 500 pesos a month, which supplements her 262-peso retirement. Guillermina retired last year. At 56, she is the oldest woman worker.
" I like to work and helping out the banana plantation crews, plus we put away a little extra for some future event," the broad-faced woman said, showing youthful white teeth. After lunch, she returned to her bananas.
" Now, that we have specific work responsibilities, I've decided to take the afternoon off. I'm caught up with weeding our papayas," explained Edgardo.
He wanted to talk with me while cleaning house and preparing for dinner. Edgardo, now 50 years old gets 700 pesos monthly. These wages are advances based upon the previous year's income. The crews earn according to the product results they cultivate. All workers spend some time on the libreta (rations) crops like potatoes plus their own designated crops.
At the end of each season, sales are divided amongst the workers after the cooperative takes its cut for maintenance, administration and new investments. Last year, Edgardo earned 8000 pesos over the advance monthly wage. Workers in the more demanding guayaba fruit plantation earned twice that. Some crops require less work and bring in less income.
" We can feel the differences, Ron. We are more comfortable since share-profiting was introduced and since we got our house, in 1997. We're earning three times what we did when you were here. We pay a pittance for the house until we own it outright [they can't be thrown out by law], and nothing for gas, water or electricity.
" Of course, not all is roses. They didn't come near their promise of housing construction and we still don't have more say running things but the system is more open. So I decided to join the party. I'm now a militant."
Guillermina came in with a small chicken in one hand and a bottle of my name in the other. She had taken off work early to buy her favorite meat at 60 pesos, and a cheap rum at 30 pesos.
" We celebrate your return, Ron. Cheers," and we downed a tingling shot.
Guillermina caressed our dinner with one large and callused hand. Its eyes closed peacefully and she twisted its neck in one motion. Not a pip. It took Guillermina just minutes to pluck and cut up the chicken. As it simmered in a pan, and as the sweet potatoes, rice and beans were cooking?which Edgardo had prepared along with a fresh green and tomato salad?the loving couple took a bucket bath together. Edgardo had heated the water with a Chinese spiral electrical heater.
Dinner was delicious and festive.
My hosts' home-town baseball team and a Havana club were starting a three-game series, which must be seen. After the Walt Disney cultural imperialism hour, we watched the game on their 101-channel television set. Only Cuba's five stations can be seen. Five of the 23 families in this compound have TV sets so several neighbors roared or moaned with us.
Hands in soil
Grunting pig, crowing cock, buzzing mosquito, child crying! You name the noise and it penetrates through wood-slatted windows that can't be shut tightly and through the porous concrete structure. I rose from the narrow cot and thin mattress and stepped into the acrid bathroom. Coffee and a plain hard bun for breakfast, and we were all but ready to start the work day. But not before filing sharp my 40-cm long banana machete, Guillermina's knife and Edgardo's heavy hoe.
Entering the mature plantation in the early morning dew is a venerate experience. The shadowy silence and fresh moisture embraces and comforts. Under the tall fruit banana and shorter burro banana trees, the sun does not penetrate to human height and fronds protect one from rain. All is green and tranquil.
This was my experience again, just as I described it a dozen years ago when Guillermina and I worked the fruit jungle. Today, Guillermina works in the larger of two banana plantations with 54,000 trees, divided into 12 sections. One worker is responsible for each plot of some 4,500 fruit-bearing plants, but they often work in pairs or small groups.
GIA-2 is still its common name but the cooperative has fewer bananas than when it encompassed 900 hectares. All UBPCs were reduced in size so that fewer workers could better tackle the tasks. Much time was lost when the land was so vast and many of the 300 workers had to walk so long to and from work. GIA-2 split into four UBPCs. This one of 192 hectares is tilled by 126 workers.
Guillermina introduced me to fellow workers as "un cubano mas" (just one more Cuban), making me blush with pride.
Today, we were to cut dried ends of the long fronds before the trees grew over our reach, and the outer layer of the trunk, the yagua, behind which thrives a little green frog. This cute, gentle animal unintentionally causes fright in most Cuban women and some men. Even "superwoman" Guillermina gives a yelp and takes a step back upon seeing one. So, men usually cut the yagua.
Stooping and slashing round the plant, stepping to the next, stooping and slashing, simultaneously swatting mosquitoes and mites. That's the routine but it doesn?t need to be boring. We are our own bosses, in part, and can stop when we want, chat when we wish, or exchange tasks.
Lunch at the cafeteria was tasty and nourishing but some of the old timers reminded me that when all 300 workers lived in the camp, instead of 46 now, the meals were richer. There is never beef and almost never fish. Cuba's fishing fleet has been drastically reduced. Yet now they have more variety of vegetables and fruits, because they have diversified their crops.
The topic of food is more troublesome to camp dwellers than is camp cleanliness, including toilet-shower hygiene. The facilities have deteriorated. There are no lights; fixtures are broken and all bulbs burnt or stolen. Only two showers function and must be alternately shared by men and women. Plumbing is worse: only four clothes-washer sinks work; "toilets" are still holes in the ground with soiled newspapers beside them.
After lunch, I was shown the cooperative's biggest challenge: grape growing. A Spanish wine growing investor imported thousands of young plants. Under his instructions, workers fastened vines between three wires stretched over hundreds of posts. Grapes require intensive labor: constant watering, stem cutting and lots of weeding.
They have sown peppers between the 500 rows containing 37,000 grape vines.
Thirty thousand papayas have been planted behind the grapes. The farm administration bought seeds from private farmers for the first crop and they hope to use their own seeds for the next planting. Digging holes in the hard red earth is arduous ?man?s work?. As we hack, women unload 6,000 new plants from a borrowed oxen cart. (They used to have their own oxen but sold them to buy tractors.) Plants are then placed in holes, which once contained other papaya plants that died from lack of proper planting and inadequate irrigation.
Mirta, yet another member from Santiago de Cuba, complains of the needless loss.
"The field director neglected to see to it that the earth was properly watered and fertilized before he ordered us to rush the planting."
Why didn't you say so?
" Ah, what good does complaining do?" she retorts, her eyes rolling.
" We have complained about some things," added her partner, "like the ridiculous guard duty. We work six days a week and half-day every other Sunday. On top of that, we must conduct four monthly 12-hour night shifts `guarding´ the fields. But we cannot be armed while the thieves may be. They are prepared to come in the steal of the night and take crops without our seeing them, or if we do, so what. What can we do to stop them?"
Night guarding, however, is a condition of membership, these workers say. The response to earlier protests was: guard duty or dismissal.
Later, I spoke with an older man whose full-time job is to guard an abandoned resident shelter. He lives alone in one of the run-down shacks on 225 pesos a month. There is no electricity or running water. His prepared meals are delivered to him.
"You know us Cubans. Without a guard, every bit of concrete left would be broken up and hauled off. They say they will rebuild this place one day for residences. What do I know?" he shrugged.
General assembly democracy
After dinner, most of members attended the monthly general assembly in which evaluations are made and plans laid. The UBPC director, Matias Cabrera, was appointed by the regional UBPC firm three years ago to replace a negligent leadership, which involved some fraud. Matias, now 40, had been a farm worker since youth. He opened the meeting with the accountant's financial report: no losses in three years; monthly profit sharing is above average in last period at 125 pesos; our sales, especially to tourist centers, assure us profit, and we are regularly paying off our 2.2 million debt; cafeteria is operating at a loss, each meal costs thrice what camp residents pay: 60 pesos monthly.
There were no questions or comments.
Then Matias delineated problems and plans in a monologue stream.
" We have not received sufficient boots but more are expected; we have problems with our irrigation system and this is acute, especially avocados; we are replacing the lost papayas.
"Thirty-one members are behind in paying their union dues, including some leaders. This shows a lack of respect. There were 29 departures in December; four firings: 2 for thievery, 2 for indiscipline and disorderly drunkenness; the remainder decided to quit.
" Camp discipline is faulty and the grounds are dirty. The cafeteria lacks some essentials. Since we do not foresee enough housing construction in the near future, I am proposing that the camp be legalized as permanent residences for each person or couple without a home and installed with cooking facilities. In this way, we can close the cafeteria and everyone will have a home.
" From now on, fines will be levied for those who do not clean their area adequately. There are 15 undocumented workers. If they do not get their papers in order within a week, they are dismissed. The administration is responsible and would be required to pay a penalty. Beginning tomorrow all workers are required to participate in potato weeding.
" That is all. Are there any questions or comments?"
Only one man spoke. He asked why they didn't buy sufficient papaya plants to replace the loss. Matias replied that there were not enough funds and they must now concentrate on potatoes.
After the rather dry assembly, I milled about outside with some long-faced members. People were unhappy with the constant turn-over of members, with the fines imposed for untidiness, and Matias' manner of addressing them as underlings.
Mirta and her crew said that they didn't speak up because, "it would not change anything." Edgardo and others said that the promises of elections and worker decision-making exist only on paper. Young Alejandro, a recent member, also from Santiago and known as the leading jodedor (clownish joker) viewed it differently.
" I see no need to criticize or rebel. We take orders, because we know the leaders want to go forward for and with us. They are little mangoes (meaning good people)."
We walked directly from breakfast to the fields. The matutino (morning meeting) is no longer a cooperative feature, discarded as a "waste of time"-a radical departure from the earlier attitude of without a matutino there is no cooperative. Several scores of hectares with rows half-a-kilometer long, each with about 1,500 potato plants and tens of thousands of choking weeds. This is not a pleasant sight. No one looks forward to work today and the coming days it will take to hack and pull up weeds.
Mild-mannered Alex, the production chief, and Juan, potato crew leader, led us into the first rows. They showed me how to hoe the weeds without getting too close to the plants. The problem is that to avoid cutting potatoes one must stoop over most plants to pull out the weeds growing amidst the plants themselves. I experienced that to do a thorough job of weeding requires much more time and painful stooping than the majority were prepared to offer. Most hack the weeds without getting down to the roots, and the amount of stooping to pick out weeds that can not be hoed is not commensurate with the amount of weeds.
Hacking, stooping, hacking and stooping. My head ticked with figures. How many rows, potatoes, weeds, how many man/woman hours? I came up with some three million potato plants. And they should cultivate twice in the season. So there must be two campaigns with most of the members participating.
Alex realized that the work is so tedious and takes so many days that he does not conduct quality control thoroughly.
Juan showed me their use of biological control against pests. The ladybug eats the bigger bad guys, cinche. Juan said that most farmers are using as many ecological methods of farming as possible. State instructions and propaganda have greatly risen the national consciousness about the worth of organic versus chemical.
" The only problem," Alex says, "is if the good bugs get overwhelmed by the bad ones and can't reverse their growth. If a plague sets in then we must use chemical pesticides. The problem with that is once they are used it takes a long time for the poison to disappear so that we can go back to biological control. In the five years I've been here we've used chemicals just two or three times. We can't be completely ecological. Our priority is to put enough food on everybody's table and, hopefully, without having to use precious valuta to import it."
All farmers are required to grow and sell basic products to the state, in order to assure everyone rationed goods at subsidized prices, the libreta, and at less subsidized prices on the state farm markets, set up in 1994 to compete with and undersell the supply-demand farmer markets.
At first, private farmers supplied most of the goods but at prices few could afford. Soon state cooperative farmers began selling products at cost+ prices after meeting libreta commitments. The army, which produces much of its own food, joined in the competition with its EJT soldier-farmers.
Private farmers are still entitled to own up to 65 hectares of land but there are only a few thousand unaffiliated farmers remaining. In the 1960s, most independents and cooperatives created the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) to represent them before the state. In the 1990s, ANAP set up a new organization for mutual financial benefit, CCS (Credit and Service Cooperatives).
ANAP farmers now produce 60% of the nation's root and green vegetables and grains, 60% of its pork, and ANAP is the major producer of tobacco, livestock, fruits and coffee. It is especially CCS farmers who earn the greatest valuta profits from Cuba's renowned cigars and coffee.
The state collectives had produced practically all the sugar and rice. Sugar is now produced mainly by the UBPCs (90%), which is also a major producer of green and root vegetables and fruits.
Most rice is produced by yet another form of farming: the Urban Truck Farms (UTFs). The UTFs are tilled by family units and some full-time city farmers, who utilize organic intensive growing methods. They grow the best green vegetables, herbs and condiments.
UBPCs now till about half the nation's soil, double what they had in 1995. ANAP's 300,000 members till approximately 35% of the cultivated land (25% of total agricultural lands); the EJT about 8%; some old granjas still exist and till about 8% of the land. These farm workers now have better wages and some profit-sharing. They cultivate some vegetables but mainly citrus fruits. The remainder of produce comes from the UTFs, which includes self-consumption and market sales.
There are over one million farmers of all kinds. This is 21% of Cuba's 4.6 million workers (service=64%, industry=14%). No farm worker lives only on wages any longer. Profit-sharing has taken over and has satisfied a basic demand.
These changes have also improved the state budget. Subsidization of agriculture has decreased significantly, from 54% in the 1990s to 20% today.
Dr. Santiago Rodriguez Castellon, agricultural economist at Havana University's Cuban Economic Studies Centre (CEEC), provided facts and figures and described changes.
" The reduction of subsidization is one of our greatest achievements. Another is the 50% increase of all vegetables in the last three years. We now produce 60% of our food, up 220% from a decade ago. We are not long from when the Special Period will be concluded."
There is yet a ways to go, Dr. Rodriguez admits. "It had been predicted that UBPCs would take over all granja lands and that all would be profitable. While they have doubled production, only half are profitable; others must rely on state subsidies and credits.
" Not nearly as many housing units have been built as promised. Many leave UBPCs because they must live in cramped collective compounds. The longer established private cooperatives are more attractive. The few granjas left are still too dependent on the state and lack many resources. Moreover, poor work habits inherited from before the Special Period have not been eradicated."
The economist lamented that the UBPCs have not matured to the point where workers elect their own leadership, in most cases. "The objective of autonomy is still extant, but it is difficult to define and separate where the state stops and the cooperative autonomy process starts. The old centralism, however, has been broken."
It was the state's top leadership, which took the initiative to combat, what many call, "revolutionary paternalism".
Matias' house looks like Edgardo-Guillermina's. The key difference is that he has DVD and other modern entertainment technology, which attracts neighbors. They come to borrow salt or sugar; some stay to watch TV and drink coffee, which his young wife gladly serves. Matias is not preoccupied with critical questions posed.
" Membership turn-over is not a problem. There are always more seeking work than leave. Those who leave don't want to work hard. Too many Cubans are spoiled and lack consciousness. And we do have a stable group of 78 workers, mainly those who have housing."
What about the papaya crop?
" The original planting was faulty, a lack of consciousness again. Sure, I have enough money to buy the necessary plants but I didn't want to tell the assembly this. They must concentrate on potatoes now."
Lying for convenience is not viewed culturally as a "sin" or wrong, especially if the intention is well meant.
Does his leadership style turn people away?
" Look who's in my house? Everyday it is like this, a dozen or more people pass in and out. Some may not like it when I'm precise. But they can't deny the facts: we have had a profit each year I've been here; most weeds get removed; we've made several million peso investments in the best paying crops: avocados, papayas, mangoes, guayaba, and the wine grapes, which is a long-term investment."
Matias may only receive a fixed monthly salary of 500 pesos but some workers point out that he gets shares based upon their production, has the only house in the compound with a freezer, and has several rice cookers plus the entertainment apparatuses, which many enjoy.
FROM HARVEST TO TABLE
Fourth in Series
When I worked in agriculture in the early 1990s, one of the greatest problems was the distribution system. The December 1993 national assembly sessions included an alimentary report by Candido Palmero, former head of agricultural contingents. He said that the contingents and the new cooperative UBPCs could guarantee their production goals but he couldn't guarantee that "you will eat all harvested crops, because we don't have our own trucks to distribute goods."
Candido considered the state centralized food distribution centers, Acopio, a disaster!
Although Fidel and other state leaders expressed interest in changing the system and distributing directly to local markets, there remains much to be done. In contrast to then, however, other forms of distribution are allowed. For example, most ANAP cooperatives have converted to the Credit and Service Cooperative (CCS), which own and share farm equipment, and many CCSs own their own distribution trucks, a significant advantage over most state cooperatives.
Most private producers distribute directly to designated farmers markets,
but they must buy gasoline and parts in the convertible currency (cucs).
If they distribute their own crops, they also lose precious time from
the fields or they must employ drivers and (illegally) vendors. Nevertheless,
direct distribution to market places is common fare for 25,000 individual
farmers, for nearly 2000 CCSs and the remaining 750 Agricultural Production
Cooperatives (CPAs), and the farmer-soldier EJT. Even a few profitable
UBPCs and granjas have sufficient funds to buy vehicles and distribute
directly to markets, or they set up stands where people can buy those
products remaining after sales to the state.
Distribution and Investigative Journalism
Matias Cabrera did not see any problem with the traditional Acopio system.
" Improvements have occurred since your time. Both producers and distributors are better in advising one another concerning times of harvest, how much shall be collected and what days the trucks will arrive," the UBPC farm director told me.
"We get three different prices for our products, one for the libreta rations, another for the state controlled farm markets, and a third from the tourist hotels. The Acopio collects and distributes more exactly.
" Thievery of our products is prevented because a farmer rides in the trucks. He observes what is delivered where and sees that the correct payment is noted. Control is better."
In February 2006, the Communist party newspaper, "Granma", conducted an unusually critical investigative series about problems in agriculture, farm markets and distribution. "Granma" confronted distribution problems, which Matias apparently oversaw, when it interviewed the Acopios national leader, Frank Castaneda Santalla.
" We recognize that our transportation is deteriorated. Four hundred trucks are inactive for lack of parts and repairs. We have 1,200 trucks for the whole country, and only 60% are active. The Ministry of Agriculture has recently invested funds in tires and batteries, in order to reactivate 172 trucks and 92 trailers. Most of our trucks are from the old socialist Europe. They have 20 years or more of use and consume enormous amounts of fuel."
Acopios have too few front line employees
" We have 17,000 employees, but 40% are administrators and bureaucrats. We propose to reduce them by fifty percent."
Castaneda added that Acopio workers need better wages and an improved image.
Both Castaneda and Vice-Minister of Agriculture Juan Perez Lamas, whom "Granma" also interviewed, maintain that the chief cause of insufficient foodstuffs is not with Acopio distribution weakness, however, but lays in insufficient production.
Castaneda said that illegal distribution intermediaries would disappear if farmers were motivated to produce more, if they would be content, "to live on the income from their harvests and not motivated to sell at higher prices."
In "Granma's" February 21 article, Ciego de Avila province Acopio leader, Giuvel Rodriguez Rivero, contradicted Castaneda and Perez.
" The distribution of agricultural products is an old challenge, which has not been totally solved. The principal problem is lack of transport," he said.
" I am of the opinion that the Acopio is not serious. It does not comply with its commitments, and should be more flexible in ratifying sowing (and harvest) plans exactly. And when the Acopio delays collecting harvests, they are sold to whoever appears. Is this not an illegality? I won't deny it (but in this way) the harvests are not lost. We know there are receptive stomachs.
In another "Granma" interview, ANAP's president, Orlando Lugo Fonte, who is a member of the State Council, offered a frank portrayal of problems: contractual agreements often not made or completed, lack of packaging causing loss of "much food harvested", and lack of weights where crops are delivered at the Acopios.
" There are very few animal weights so their weight is estimated by a functionary; and there are too few weights at farmer markets. Another major problem for farmers is late payment of delivered crops by the ministries of agricultural and sugar.
"Ministry functionaries are often undisciplined in setting prices in time for farmers to buy seed. And the ministries buy products at different prices based on quality. But in most markets, the sellers do not make quality distinctions in sale prices. Farmers must also pay 29% of the product price for distribution and commercialization," Lugo explained.
Sometimes farmers' income does not meet their costs
Lugo said that the more expensive supply-demand farmer markets are often supplied by self-employed intermediaries. They usually drive to the fields and buy products directly from farmers. And there is less control in these markets, including veterinary certificates, than in the state-run markets, where prices are set by the state and quality checks are made by inspectors.
" Granma's" interview with Vice-Minister Perez focused on food marketing and common complaints of high food prices. Perez, a former farmer, offered the following figures: each person has a monthly need of 30 pounds of all forms of vegetables, grains and fruits, requiring 2.5 million tons. Another 2.5 million tons are produced for food consumption outside the home, restaurants, tourist centers, hospitals, canned goods for export.
Seventy percent of household foodstuff is sold in the state's 13,800 free markets. In addition, there are 400 small organic food stands where prices are often arbitrarily set.
" Granma" asked the vice-minister why prices are often arbitrarily established, why payments are late, and why farmers often end up on the short end of the stick.
" We are strengthening the Acopios...We make imprecise estimates of harvests and this results in inadequate control in the organization of packing and transportation?We have made up for most back payments and this problem should disappear."
According to Acopio leader Castaneda, the Acopios lack at least 6,000 scales
Regarding the lack of weighing products, Perez simply admitted that this occurs. Perez added that there is still a scarcity of means of production and seeds to meet all farmers' needs. Many types of seeds are sold to farmers at subsidized prices. However, the state can not provide sufficient fertilization, so what there is, is sold to the highest yielding farmers.
Nevertheless, farmers receive more resources than before: modern irrigation technology (for some farms), using less fuel and more electricity, and there are more tractors and oxen than before the special period.
" But we lack work clothing, boots, machetes and sharpening files, tractor parts and tires...We deal out to the best producers, no type of farmer is discriminated against. All farmers get free technical advice from state institutions," Perez continued.
" Our biggest challenge is to reduce high prices, so we must achieve greater production."
Other problems include, "Undisciplined functionaries, and intermediaries who live off the sweet of the workers, which has to do with our lack of control in the ministry. We must confront the irresponsible ones."
Despite the many problems, the Special Period alimentary reforms have definitely advanced the battle for food. The state has increased its prices for farm products, up to five times the value in five years. Individual and cooperative private farmers are assured continued ownership of their lands by new recruitment. Many of the younger generation, which had left their family farms, have returned, and other youths, including women, have become farmers. Private farmers are assured profitable commercialization by employing accountants and technicians.
While the quantity and quality of produce has greatly improved, the reforms have led to the introduction of a petty bourgeoisie and a small exploited farm proletariat, allowing some private farmers and the illegal wholesale intermediaries to live far above median standards. They form part of the "new rich", which the state combats in its "Battle of Ideas" morality propaganda campaign.
Farmer's Market in Havana
" They pay us in script, which we can only spend in the company store to which we owe our soul," just like in Tennessee Ernie Ford's song.
That is a bitter refrain from an old friend and political refugee, who has lived here nearly three decades. Bill refers to the fact that most Cubans' income is only in the national peso, which can not be used anywhere else in the world, nor can the recently introduced convertible currency (cucs), which is based on the US $ at 24 pesos. Everyone can use cucs to buy many products, even essential ones, that can't be bought in pesos.
Acquiring food in Cuba is quite special. Some food is nearly a birthright "taken" for a pittance on the libreta. And then there are those items one must buy on the free farmers' markets, of which there are at least three types:
Agropecuarios, state controlled markets with maximum (topados) prices; these account for 70% of national market sales. Agromercados, supply-demand markets established in 1994 and supplied mainly by the private farmers and their cooperatives (ANAP); prices are 40% higher, overall, than agropecuarios. Agricultural urbana, the urban truck farms, which sell produce at high prices at roadside stands. The UTCs produced 4.1 million tons of ecological vegetables and condiments. Most goes to self-consumption for the city family growers at cost.
Not only Bill wants an end to the libreta, so do many of the well-off Cubans, including economist Omar Everleny. He says many Cubans sell items not needed at high prices to others. In this way, the state is wasting funds subsidizing some people unnecessarily. Others are worried that without the libreta they will not have enough money to buy many essential items. The state instituted rations when the US started its blockade so that no one goes hungry. Everleny proposes that those with low incomes be subsidized with cash to buy these goods on the open markets.
What is available on rations costs an adult about 35 pesos a month. I calculate that to acquire these goods on the free markets would cost four to five times that amount. Bear in mind that the average wage is 334 pesos, the minimum 225, and minimum pension is 150. Economists estimate that the minimum wage must be doubled, in order that each person can buy the current monthly consumption of 30 pounds of vegetables, fruits and grains, plus some meat.
Libreta goods available monthly per person for 2005-6, followed by what was available in 1994-5:
sugar=5 pounds (lb) in relation to 6 lb(1);
salt=small portion both periods;
rice=7 lb to 6 lb; beans=1 lb to 1.25 lb;
potatoes=2-3 lb to rarely;
grains=lb to ?;
ground beef= to 1lb;
chicken=1/4 chicken to 1 lb for children only;
fish=small fish sometimes to the same;
eggs=6-8 to 14;
coffee=1 lb pure to 1lb pea mix;
cacao=1 lb to =0;
powdered milk=1 lt. for children up to 7 and then 0 lt.
soya to 1 lt. up to age 7;
vegetables=0 to a few sometimes;
bread=1 roll per day to the same or 2;
tooth paste=2 tubes per persons to 1 tube per sometimes;
cooking oil=0 to 1lt. sometimes;
hand soap=1 sometimes to 1 rarely; laundry soap=0 to rarely; detergent=0 to rarely;
cigars=4-6 to 6; cigarettes=6 packs to the same; matches=1 little box to the same;
rum=1 cheap bottle sometimes to the same;
clothing and shoes=0 to officially each year but not always: 1 pants, 1 dress, 1 shirt or blouse, 4 underwear, 1 shoes-boots.
Shopping and Prices
Everyone must buy some foods at the markets. Since I lived just behind
Havana's best stocked agromercado (at 19th between A & B), I shopped
there my first week until a vendor refused to see my point that wearing
a US flag T-shirt was supporting propaganda against his own people.
I then shopped mainly at the army's EJT market several blocks away.
Produce Pesos Pesos
root vegetables 3-5/lb 1-5/pesos
potatoes 2/lb 1.5 to 2/lb
tomatoes 5/lb 1-2/lb
lettuce, cabbage 5 each 2-3 each
peppers 8 each 5 each
garlic 4/bunch 3/bunch
onions 10/bunch 5/bunch
rice 4/lb 3-3.5/lb
beans 8-10/lb 7-8/lb
oranges 1/each by lb. or .50 each
grapefruit 2/each by lb. or 1 each
paypaya 5/each 1.5 lb. or 3 each
pineapple 10-20 each 5-7 each
fruit bananas 1 each by lb. or .50 each
Beef is not sold in pesos. If someone slaughters a cow illegally, there is a stiff prison term. The limited number of cattle is reserved for milk and bulls for farm work, plus some sales only in cucs.
This currency is politically valued at $1.10. Since everyone must exchange hard currencies into cuc, the state is obtaining currency it can use for imports.
Cubans buy undergarments and new clothing in cucs or they come from families living abroad.
The numerable cuc markets, cafes and restaurants charge about the same prices or even more than in the First World. A liter of juice, for example, can be two or three cucs Eggs cost .15 cucs each; a pound of beef 6; an apple .50; a good rum anywhere from 5 to 15?equivalent to a month?s minimum wage or more in pesos.
Cubans buy popsicles sold from state-run refrigerated bell-ringing trucks at five pesos. Many buy a dry ham sandwich at many peso or cuc stands for the equivalent of one or more day's wage. And at the peso stands, one must stand to down the snack in a flash.
Pork can be bought at most forms of markets in pesos. The supply-demand markets have been forced to cut prices from 55 to 65 pesos a pound to 35 to 50, because the state is a sharp competitor now. State collectives, some cooperatives and the EJT sell pork for between 25 and 40 pesos.
Hygiene at farmers markets is not optimal. There is insufficient refrigeration so meat is laid in the open so customers can see what is offered and flies can eat. Sales clerks handle the meat with ungloved hands, which are also used to handle dirty bills.
There are more garbage containers in much of Havana than a decade ago, and collection is more regular but there are too few container and collections in some districts. And some containers are stolen to be used elsewhere. People are accustomed to throwing trash, bottles and cans anywhere it fancies them.
While the state no longer can guarantee all foods and clothing in pesos, it does sell recycled clothing and it still subsidized utilities. Used pants sell at 30-50 pesos; 15-20 for shorts; 25-30 for shirts and blouses; 40-80 for dresses; 40-50 for light jackets.
An average family uses about 35-45 pesos a month for electricity, cooking gas and alcohol, water and telephone, for those who have the latter. The long-maintained monthly price of 19 pesos for 150KW was increased to 26 at the start of this year. And now there is a graduated price rise for greater usage. If one uses as much as 300KW, for example, it costs 91 pesos.
Many complain about the electricity increases; the state counters with a savings campaign. Besides the many programs underway, one could learn to simply turn off light switches, TVs and radios when not in use. But that is a strong challenge to the lackadaisical part of Cuban culture.
(1) The sugar mono-culture is broken. Production has fallen from 6-8 million tons annually to 1.3 million tons last year. There is 700,000 tons for national consumption, the rest for export. Prices recently rose from $4 to 20 cents per pound, so Cuba is planting more cane sugar again.
FAREWELL TO VOLUNTEER FARM WORK 2006
Last in Series of Five
El Rubio is the smallest of the UBPCs (Basic Units of Production Cooperation), which was split off from the Jose A Fernandez original cooperative. Its campsite lays two kilometers away. I spoke with a handful of the 60 workers to get a cursory idea of how conditions are for them, and how they tackle decision-making.
The state has not built any housing for these workers, and only six at the other two farms, which had once formed the original UBPC. So the local government has provided a few town residencies, but most live in the camp, two to a room. They share toilets and showers and eat in the cafeteria.
Most of these workers also come from the eastern provinces but there is little turnover and no thievery, they say. Their director is a young man, recently promoted from production chief.
" We have greater stability in this camp and people work hard. They feel tranquil and earn well," comments the director, Luis Enrique.
" Our land is planted mainly in bananas and guayaba. Banana workers receive a monthly advance of 500 pesos and the others 800. There is more work and profits in guayaba. We distribute profit-shares once a year. Some earn as much as 20,000 pesos over the advance.
"In this way, we have almost no departures within the year. After a couple years or so, some easterners take their savings and return to their birth place to build a house."
A national joke has it that Havanans, nicknamed aseres, accuse naquitos, those from Santiago de Cuba, of rejecting their home province for the preferred, more sophisticated Havana. Naquitos reply that they migrate, in order to save the homeland because so many aseres abandon Cuba for Miami and those who remain refuse to work hard.
Luis rose to leadership from the ranks, which is more common today. Other farm leaders, heads of production and personnel, usually move up the ladder. No one is voted into power nor do the workers make most decisions. But they seem to have more desire to make suggestions.
"Regional leadership lets us pick our leaders. Few leaders come from the outside", Luis says.
" The idea of total worker control is a dream, which most workers are not prepared for."
It seems that Luis is more popular and respected by the workers than is the case with Matias. But both share work discipline philosophy.
" Leadership must discipline workers, in order to prevent our passionate temperaments from taking control," Luis says. Edgardo and Guillermina agree.
" Most naquitos and other easterners are not self-disciplined and don't easily settle in as usufructuaries of the land. So, yes, leadership must demonstrate discipline, but there are ways and ways of doing this."
Alejandro stood on top of a pile of shit, animal dung used for fertilizer. A score of workers watched him jump up and down on it, apparently in an effort to loosen it all.
" Quite appropriate place for you, my mate. You are always in the shit," I called out from my bicycle.
For once Alejandro didn't know how to reply. He just laughed. One of the onlookers spoke instead: "Ron won the jodedor (joker) post for the day."
I was heading back to Havana and from there to my home in Denmark. We were saying farewell for now, a la Cubana.
The night before, Guillermina had bought and prepared another chicken for our last dinner while Edgardo told me about his time in an international mission. And then we got to see their favorite base ball team play yet again.
Edgardo and Guillermina are both naquitos. When they worked
together in Santiago de Cuba Edgardo was in the army reserves. Angola's
progressive government was then under armed attack by the apartheid
South African government, which supported the right-wing counter-revolutionaries.
Angola asked Cuba for assistance and it complied, sending many thousands of volunteer soldiers.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Cubans assisted many governments in defending their countries under attack by US-friendly, repressive governments. This was the case with Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and a few secret missions elsewhere.
CIA propaganda claimed that President Fidel Castro forced Cubans to fight and die on foreign shores.
" That is one more of their many lies," Edgardo tells me.
" I volunteered for an international mission, in 1983, when the army called for volunteers. We received medical check-ups and training in combat. We were not told where we would be sent but we had two opportunities to back out. First when called upon and then at the airport before departure.
"When we received word that we were to fight in Angola and that this was the last chance to accept the international solidarity mission or not, five or six men out of my company of 160 decided to stay in Cuba. There was no problem for them. They simply returned to their jobs or stayed in the army at home."
Edgardo recounted the harsh conditions everyone lived under during his 28 months in Angola. There was often no where to sleep but on the ground or in hammocks. They sometimes had to hunt their food. Many native and Cuban soldiers fell sick or died of diseases; many died from wounds.
Although he fought many battles, Edgardo was not wounded. He was promoted to first sergeant and headed a squadron of men.
"I confronted many horrible sights, of which I care not to speak. Like so many others, I volunteered to fight, because our country has an ethic of brotherhood. Most Cubans were originally Africans forced into slavery. Our revolution did away with racist discrimination, slavery's successor, but our brothers and sisters in Africa are still subjugated to racist oppression and thievery of their resources by dominating foreign governments, such as was the case in Angola in those years. I could not sit by and do nothing."
When Edgardo returned home, he resumed his job at the school and his love relationship with Guillermina. They soon wed. In 1993, after their children by earlier partners had grown and left home, they decided to volunteer for the farm contingent then working the land where they are now.
Santiago de Cuba, nicknamed naquitos, are often
the best baseball players in Cuba, which usually
has the world's best amateur teams.
After a tasty dinner, we watched, alongside several neighbors, Santiago de Cuba's baseball team win the series against Havana's Industrial team.
In the morning, we ate a filling breakfast and Guillermina prepared me a sandwich for the road.
Our embraces lingered. Then Edgardo told me:
" Nothing will break our friendship. We are your family here. You come whenever you can. You are not a foreigner but our brother, one more Cuban completing an international mission."
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