Feeding Cubans

In the years that followed the Cuban revolution, many people left the land to live, work, and further educate themselves in towns and cities. The new Revolutionary government often facilitated this exodus, building large apartment developments to provide opportunities for former “campesinos”, agricultural workers. Food was cultivated by workers hired to labour on state-owned cooperatives. Food shortages required the government to issue citizens a ration card, the “libreta”, to ensure that everyone was fed as fairly as national food production permitted.

Cubans watched food being exported for foreign currency in order to import goods not available otherwise. People who have dollars can purchase food (and other goods) in stores which accept foreign currency only. And while some foodstuffs are available outside the libreta, today, 53 years later, the ration card is still required and in use. The problem? In a recent speech to the people, Raul Castro said that the government is the largest landholder in Cuba, yet most of that land is not under cultivation.

Educating Cuba’s illiterate and disenfranchised people was a great and noble thing. However, a great irony has resulted from the emphasis on education that resulted in people leaving the land to establish life in urban settings. As the old vaudeville song asks, “How’re you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Broadway–or Havana?

The solution is not simple. Government planning and priorities have obviously been faulty. Agriculture, agronomy, is a science. Knowledgeable farmers are now scarce. People are not motivated to undertake hard work on the land under the tropical sun when the fruits of their labour are for the state, not themselves.

Cuba is being praised for undertaking organic farming production, a by-product of the ongoing US trade embargo and little money to purchase expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What will Cuba do with its currently uncultivated land? Watching how Cuba solves the basic problem of feeding its twelve million people from its own fertile soil and ending rationing will be fascinating indeed.

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