The Cuban Paradox
The island, like any territory, is rich in nuances.
Disclaimer: A couple of hyperlinks in this text cite sources in Spanish.
Click aquí para leer en Español.
Landing in Cuba is like approaching a vibrant emerald in the middle of the sea. Fields full of shades of green are scattered throughout the island’s territory in orderly plots; various grids of all sizes, some with small groups of cattle. Among these farms, several vacant lots stand out, demarcated despite not having much vegetation or signs of any intervention. The land available for farming seems to abound before my eyes.
What brings me to Cuba is the eighth International Encounter of Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, Nutritional Education and Cooperativism, organised by the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). It’s an opportunity to exchange knowledge, immerse in the island’s agricultural dynamics, and foster solidarity among the peoples of the Americas. These gatherings bring awareness to the multiple impacts of the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed on the Cuban people by the U.S. government for over 60 years.
The encounter’s international delegation of more than 120 participants included members from La Vía Campesina, the largest peasant, Indigenous, and rural workers movement in the world, and a significant number of delegates from the United States.
In Colombia, where I come from, we rarely hear about Cuba, and when we do, it’s usually stories that lie under a thick cloud of negative narratives, a common phenomenon rooted in imperialism that is replicated by most media around the world. But what stings and bothers me the most about this pattern is the profound indifference that has resulted from these narratives in my country, despite the fact that Cuba was home to the negotiations that birthed the end of Colombia’s 50+ year-long internal conflict with the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 — An agreement whose first point of action is an Integral Rural Reform.
In full curiosity, I step onto Cuban soil in the humid, sticky noon heat. One by one, other delegates arrive from different corners of the Americas, and for many, like me, it’s our first time on the island. In a van and on our way to the ANAP educational centre, the urban landscape shifts to lush rural, with a view so familiar that my mind forgets I just crossed the Caribbean to be here. I feel at home, road-tripping between municipalities of Magdalena.
My stay on the island will be short; a week full of farm visits and learning panels. We split into committees to travel to three different provinces, all close together to save on fuel, a commodity in acute scarcity, after the explosion of three supply tanks in August 2022. On the road, we share stories and ask questions to the local farmers that join us for the field trips. Their experiences begin to draw a stark contrast between their agrarian models and those of our own countries, starting with access to land.
In the 1950s, about 74% of Cuba’s agricultural land belonged to large landowners, 25% of which belonged to foreign entities. The Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro in 1959, promoted agrarian reform and nationalised all foreign private property. The Cuban state distributed more than a thousand land titles to peasants, thus eliminating large estates, or ‘latifundios’, and putting a cap on private land ownership.
According to our Cuban comrades, land is available to anyone who needs it; when submitting an application, peasants must state the “caballerias”, or acres, of land they need, the area where they plan to settle the farm, the crop varieties they plan to grow, and the personnel required to carry out their productive projects.
“Today, the state distributes land in usufruct for a minimum of 25 years. After that term, they evaluate the farm’s conditions to extend the lease for another 25 years,” a local farmer tells us as we cross a rocky trail. The apparent simplicity with which the Cuban people have access to land leaves us all impressed. After going into more detail, he shares that the Cuban state imposes a production quota that the farmer must meet each harvest. Centres such as hospitals, schools, and social institutions have priority for food distribution.
For some delegates, heavy state control over what is produced and where harvests can be sold seems to be an infringement on farmers’ autonomy. One local farmer defends the Cuban government’s oversight, arguing that Cuba needs a planned economy because they can’t afford to waste or under-produce under the constant and increasing pressure of the embargo. However, on the island, this argument has been losing traction throughout the years.
Although hyper-centralization could contribute to a territory’s food security, it can also be an obstacle to building food sovereignty and food justice if it does not prioritise and protect the freedom of peasants to decide when, where and how to sell their produce. This model of state control has long materialised different systemic contradictions on the island, creating significant political and economic challenges. Additionally, logistics for crop distribution have always faced its own share of difficulties. Therefore, Cuba is not immune to food waste, or the lack of food access.
The island, like any territory, is rich in nuances. Acknowledging the different contradictions that converge in Cuba and highlighting the stark effects of the economic sanctions should not be mutually exclusive. As they struggle through the pandemic, the global price crisis, and the devastating impact of hurricane Ian, solidarity with the Cuban people in the face of the blockade is not just necessary, but urgent.
The U.S.’ embargo on Cuba was originally initiated with the sanctions imposed by President Eisenhower in 1960 and was compounded by the total blockade signed by John F. Kennedy a couple of years later. Declassified documents reveal that the embargo was a broader U.S. strategy to create “hardship” and “disenchantment” among the Cuban population and deny “money and supplies to Cuba, decrease monetary and real wages, [and] provoke hunger, despair and the overthrow of [the] government”. However, a 1982 study conducted by the CIA concluded that twenty years after their imposition, the sanctions “have not accomplished any of their objectives”.
It’s now more than sixty years of resistance on the island. At the encounter, we could see how even under an unjust blockade, Cuban people proudly cultivate the land, waving the flag of agroecology through their journeys of struggle and liberation.
The National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) is Cuba’s largest peasant collective, made up of over 300,000 peasant farmers. Constituted on May 17, 1961, the ANAP took inspiration from the Mesoamerican ‘Campesino a Campesino’ (Farmer-to-Farmer) horizontal learning methodology, organising an agroecological movement to facilitate technological innovation and knowledge exchange. In this spirit, our visits to farms during the encounter sprouted seeds of comradery. In the province of Mayabeque, we visited a farmer named Esther. At Esther’s farm, Mexican compañeras shared the advantages of the Milpa, often known as the “three sisters” system of maize, beans, and squash, to protect and nurture her maize crops. At his agroforestry reserve, a farmer named Alfonso shared tips for growing coffee below sea level, which has gifted him taller plants and more frequent harvests than a mountain-settled crop. Puerto Rican farmers explained different uses and transformations of sour oranges, such as vinegar, at the Santo Tomás farm, where a farmer named Oscar proudly showed us the lush mandarin lemon trees that, for years, have resisted the devastating huanglongbing, a pest that has wiped out thousands of citrus crops on the island. At the Las Mercedes farm, an avocado tree has withstood cyclones, storms and hurricanes for over 20 years. The secret? The rich biomass with which they religiously cover and nourish the soil where it is planted.
The Caribbean is highly vulnerable to climate change, despite its nearly negligible contribution to global carbon emissions. In Cuba, the impact of Hurricane Ian at the end of September 2022 is still wreaking havoc on the crops of different farms. The source of strength for Gerardo, an agroecological farmer whom we visited in the province of Artemisa, is a poem that his grandfather, after whom he was named, wrote 44 years ago after the passage of a cyclone:
“Youth has brought me fulfilment and duty,
my children and my wife and the failures received.
When the dear destiny shows me my hardships, I feel a voice that tells me,
“Have faith and keep going, Gerardo,
better times will come.”
“Better times are coming,” Gerardo told us in excitement. “This being an agroecological farm and having all of you here is already a success”.
The gathering of different leaders and activists proved to bear fruit in a deeper understanding of each other’s realities. During the educational panels held on the ANAP campus, compañeras and compañeros from Cuba and different countries in the Americas shared their experiences, challenges and initiatives in their localities. From Mexico, Marta shared with us the amazing research project Activando Agroecologías, an easy, engaging and deeply emotional introduction to agroecology for the youth. Mariana surprised us all with a master class on intellectual property and seed sovereignty based on Mexican case studies, spotlighting the great risk that international treaties such as UPOV impose on the world’s peasantry. Cuban colleagues explained the cooperative model promoted by ANAP and its democratic governance systems for holistic management of production dynamics in great detail. From conflict resolution to formulations for organic inputs, all of ANAP’s processes are open-source for anyone who wants to learn them.
The exposure of corporate consolidation in Puerto Rico, where pharmaceutical giants own the vast majority of the land, kept the room in stunned silence. Puerto Rico’s water and fertile fields have been targeted for foreign extraction and enrichment for decades, tirelessly destroying the local food systems to the point that the country currently produces less than 15% of its food. Comrades from Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala are also experiencing land theft and extraction in the name of “development”, with mining and hydroelectric projects taking over ancestral lands. The safety of Indigenous peoples and land defenders in Latin American territories is beyond concerning.
For the U.S. delegation, confronting individualism is key to destabilising the core of an unjust system, and the various agroecological collectives in the country are evidence of this effort. From Vermont to the Bay Area, networks of unity, mutual aid and solidarity are built one plot of land and one harvest at a time. Witnessing the limitations that the U.S. embargo has perpetuated in Cuba and the opportunities that closer collaboration would present for the Cuban and U.S. peoples, the need to put pressure on the actors and policies that perpetuate the division between the two countries is crystal clear to this delegation.
“This trip to Cuba through the open invitation of ANAP may be the end of one journey. However, it is now the beginning of another one. [...] The home that we left to come here raised us as children of colonisers and children of the colonised, however today, we have one additional choice to make, and that choice is whether we decide to return to the United States of America as the parents of a revolution, and with our local brothers and sisters here in Cuba as a shining example, I am confident, and I hope I speak for all of us here as the U.S. delegation, that the revolution will be successful.” - Tenisio Seanima, SAAFON.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the climate crisis and a high tide of geopolitical tensions, Cuba has been taking steady steps to transform their food systems. The approval of the Food Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security Law (SSAN) in July 2022 is a significant milestone for territorial planning, sustainable development and improvement of living conditions in rural areas. Among the essential factors for achieving the objectives of this law are: the promotion of agroecology to strengthen climate resilience, food waste prevention and management, production education and training, food processing and marketing, crop diversity, nutritional education and collaboration networks with seed farms.
The road towards implementation of the SSAN law will not be easy. Still, the efforts to design a holistic structure for local food systems are both exciting and necessary to jumpstart dynamics that strengthen autonomy, facilitate access to food on the island, and minimise import dependency. This last point on imports is crucial, bearing in mind that ending the blockade, while posing opportunities, would also expose the island to risks such as dramatically shifting towards extensive agro-industrial production.
During the Obama presidency, changes in trade and travel policies revitalised the relations between the two countries in the agricultural sector, and U.S. companies were quick to seize the opportunity to expand their market share and increase their profits. In 2015, an executive of Cargill, a corporation that for decades has established itself in the top four grain and meat traders in the world, founded the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC) to work toward “removing the blockade to free trade and investment, and reestablish Cuba as a market for U.S. products”.
While opening up to the international market seems beneficial for Cuba, imagining its participation in a system that not only generates but exacerbates the environmental and socioeconomic crises we currently face begs the following question: How would Cuba protect its efforts to prioritise agroecological production and build sovereignty while actively participating in a hyper-globalised market – designed to promote a uniform, corporate food system and force transnational dependencies that only benefit the greed of a few?
After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, U.S. restrictions on Cuba tightened, not only by rolling back most of the advances achieved under the Obama administration, but with the imposition of 243 new sanctions, including the redesignation of Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and travel restrictions that hinder the exchange of knowledge and cooperation between NGOs, farmers, academics, and institutions. With President Joe Biden came hopes for political will to implement measures that could restore relations between the two nations, ease geopolitical tensions and mitigate the resulting impacts on the island.
In an effort led by the Caribbean Agroecology Institute (CAI), more than 30 signatories, including grassroots organisations, farms, NGOs, and educational institutions, sent a letter to Biden demanding four actions to fulfil his campaign promise to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families”:
Take executive action that returns the regulations governing trade and travel to Cuba to their status as of January 20th, 2017.
End the application of any sanctions and restrictions against food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance and international cooperation to Cuba, including restrictions on financial and banking transactions.
Restore a fully functioning U.S. embassy and consular services in Cuba and re-launch the bilateral working groups.
Put an end to all the existing sanctions contained in the Cuban Asset Control Regulations.
Although the Biden administration is taking small steps to restore relations, the island’s humanitarian crisis has barely had any relief. In that sense, the letter states that the recognition of Cuba’s food, agriculture and climate shocks as human rights issues is fundamental to achieving long-lasting change; because if these are truly a core pillar of U.S. policy towards Cuba, as a White House spokesperson has stated before, then future changes need to address how sanctions severely limit the rights of Cuban citizens to food security, climate justice and dignity.
At A Growing Culture, we join in solidarity with the call to end the destructive policies that, for more than half a century, have hindered Cuba’s autonomy, and I hope that experiences like mine on the island will serve as a lens to observe the potential of horizontal learning encounters for building bridges of solidarity and regional cooperation. Imagine for a moment the opportunities for collaboration and the strengthening of support networks that would be possible if only the efforts and innovations Cuba has been working on for decades were further amplified, if visiting its territory to learn about community processes was incentivised, if more of its peoples’ stories were covered, and if genuine efforts to engage in constructive dialogues based on respect and fraternity were made. The transformation of our personal, national, and regional relations with Cuba must begin with recognising our own judgments, their roots, and the dynamics that perpetuate them.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we can talk about Cuba without falling into false binaries or unnecessary demonisations. What would be different? In my case, engaging in conversations with people who recognise the nuances in history and find opportunities instead of obstacles in them, makes room to build bridges and visions of a latent revolution without borders.
No embargo has ever, nor will, block unity among our peoples.
This video by the Caribbean Agroecology Institute follows the journey of one group of delegates during the ANAP encounter as they share their reflections on Cuban agroecology and the urgency to act on the limitations of the embargo. The Havana-based media project, Belly of the Beast, also covered the experience.
This article in Orion Magazine which tells the inspiring story of La Picadora; a Cuban town that once was a vast sugar-cane monoculture, is now a reference for agroecology and environmental conservation. The piece seamlessly navigates through Cuba’s agricultural history, food systems’ effects of the U.S. embargo and the national frameworks to confront global challenges such as the climate crisis.
This article titled “New opportunities, new challenges: Harnessing Cuba’s advances in agroecology and sustainable agriculture in the context of changing relations with the United States” offers a thorough breakdown of the island’s journey transitioning to agroecology.
This video, which features many of the international delegates that joined us in Cuba, covers the ‘Each One, Teach One’ encounter where Members of La Via Campesina (LVC) in the Americas gathered together to listen and learn from each other in the process of launching a new school on agroecology and social movements in the state of Vermont, inspired by LVC’s Latin American Institute of Agroecology (IALA).
This instalment of Offshoot was written by Alejandra Bautista in deep dialogue with Margarita Fernandez (Caribbean Agroecology Institute)
Offshoot is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.