A little history of agricultural dysfunction

Juan Triana Cordoví is appreciated as one of the best economic analysts in Cuba — and for his bluntness. He recently reacted with an outburst to official rhetoric about efforts to rescue the country’s faltering sugar industry: “Hearing that today, many years later, we are going to ‘recover’, ‘save’ the sugar industry, gave me mixed feelings: Shame and rage, rage and shame.”

Right on the mark! I actually have those “mixed feelings” for all agricultural policies.

A look at the economic-social and political forces that, during decades, frustrated time and again Cuba’s massive efforts to produce prosperity in the countryside — and in the overall economy — gives additional context to Triana’s well-founded outburst.

1. The first agrarian reform law was based — apart from those peasants who opted to individually cultivate their plots — on a cooperative system with very broad powers and faculties (see the work of Lisandro Otero, Zona de Desarrollo Agrario). The initial successes supported the wise course of this approach; co-op farmers saw profits as never before. But before long, this project would be frustrated. After just a year, in the second half of 1960, the model was overwhelmed by a massive wave of nationalization. Two instruments were implemented, with disastrous consequences: Supplanting cooperatives with “People’s Farms” (total state ownership), and the de facto elimination of market relations with the imposition of a state distribution monopoly, the monstrosity known until today as Acopio. The argument put forward fervently by leaders of the radical Popular Socialist Party (PSP) at the time was that the co-op peasants were becoming a rural upper class and a potential base for the counterrevolution, which was popping up in the countryside throughout the island. Ironically, this turn to near-total nationalization actually contributed in no small measure to feed the counterrevolution. Even so, the so-called second agrarian reform law of 1963 — beyond some benefits in terms of allocation of new lands to the people’s farms and small farmers — piled up more failures by reinforcing the mechanisms of absolutist nationalization.

2. At the end of the 1960s, authorities came up with the “Havana Cordon”, creating an agricultural belt supposed to guarantee a stable food supply to Havana. The cordon ended up being an all-around failure that culminated in hushed accusations of systemic corruption against those in charge of the project.

3. The state farm- and monopoly distribution-dominated model prevailed until the early 1990s, when the state farm model was abandoned for the “Basic Units of Agro-Livestock Production” (UBPC) — supposedly a return of the cooperatives. All those spearheading this new model proposed handing over land ownership to the new co-ops, but Fidel flatly refused. This left the new entities not only burdened with old state farm debt, but subject to practically the same bureaucratic interference and control that had crushed the state farms. The result, again, was resounding failure, with particular impact on sugar cane, food and livestock production. More than 20 years later, a package of reforms was introduced to reshape the operation of the UBPCs. So far, there are no results, as they are still rethinking what to do with the agricultural co-ops.

4. In contrast, there is the minority of private farmers who clustered in the Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS). These private farmers and the CCS turned into the only truly productive agricultural sector in the country: While representing barely 20% of farmers, they account for two-thirds Cuba’s agricultural production. So, if the Marxist adage of “practice is the main test of truth” is applied, what would be the conclusion after 60 years of massive efforts?

5. Triana reflected on the problem of vanishing staples from Cuban dinner tables in an analysis entitled “My kingdom for a sweet potato”. Raúl Castro himself gave an eloquent example for the systemic dysfunction: The newly independent Vietnam was not a coffee producer, and Cuba provided technicians and experience. Today, while Vietnam has become a global coffee exporter, in Cuba coffee production has almost disappeared.

Seafood has been an unmitigated disaster. On this island surrounded by sea, eating fish is today almost exotic and less possible, due to a new law that restricts fishing activity to the maximum. For decades, Cuba’s fishing fleets were roaming the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, making seafood exports the second source of hard currency by 1975. All of this is gone, and the Caribbean’s largest island has a tiny fishing fleet, and very, very few, individual boats. The Ministry of Fisheries, by the way, was the scene of a spectacular corruption case a few years back. The result? Today, the largest of the Antilles has neither a Ministry of Fisheries nor fish to eat.

6. As the setbacks described above unfolded, the sugar industry has been on a steady decline. Another phrase has been left behind: “Let’s drink a cold guarapo…”. The industry’s first disaster was the “10-million-ton sugarcane harvest” in 1970, conceived in an improvised manner and without the necessary industrial base. The sugar minister at the time tried to explain to Fidel the impossibility of reaching the goal, due to problems with sugar mills. Fidel’s solution was to fire the minister, but — with or without him — the desired goal could not be achieved. When Cuba was incorporated into the Eastern Bloc’s trade system, a modest attempt was made to provide inputs for the perennially lacking sugar industry, without achieving much-needed modernization. The Cuban government made enormous efforts, with harvests briefly peaking around eight million tons, but then decline set in that continues to this day. Today, production barely reaches half a million tons; once a pillar of Cuba’s agro-export model, the sugar industry must now be “saved”. But the basics are amiss: Farmers and harvesters continue to receive very little pay for cut cane, prompting them to shift to food production, which brings them more income.

7. During the 1960s, the Cuban government tried hard to promote cattle raising. Millions were spent on buying bulls and dairy cows in Canada. By the end of that decade, everything had failed. Milk continues to be a major staple on Cuba’s priority list, but there would be preciously little of it if it weren’t for imported powdered milk. Despite contrary advice by international experts, rigidity and verticalism prevailed, and as a result, each and every initiative was paralyzed, collapsed and failed.

No matter how many investments, new technology, innovation, and hard work were thrown at the problem, the statist-absolutist, vertical, improvised framework and the denial of market relations imposed themselves, making any sustainable project impossible. Until today, the Cuban leadership insists on the preservation of these practices — proven inoperative by the Soviets and China — and what it got was the social and political outburst of July 11, 2021.

Tomorrow? The well-known saying goes: “Wise men rectify.” But until now, it seems that kind of wisdom is scarce.

Former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchastegui has lived in Miami since 1994. He writes regularly on Cuba’s internal politics, economic reform, and South Florida’s Cuban community.

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