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Food Security in Cuba

Sinan Koont teaches economics and is coordinator of Latin American Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He thanks numerous friends and colleagues in the United States and Cuba for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article.
For reference notes to this article contact the assistant editor at the Monthly Review office.

In 1996, Via Campesina, the recently formed international umbrella organization of grassroots peasant groups, introduced the term “food sovereignty”: the right of peoples and states to democratically decide their own food and agricultural policies and to produce needed foods in their own territories in a manner reinforcing the cultural values of the people while protecting the environment.

A related but distinct concept of “food security” has been defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to include, among other aspects: (1) the production of adequate food supplies; (2) stability in the flow of these supplies; and (3) secure access, both physical and economic, to available supplies for those in need of them. Recently, Cuba, unlike most other countries in the world, has had to grapple with these questions under circumstances that would try most people’s souls.

In the Caribbean, neither the history of colonial domination, including slavery and monoculture agriculture based on export crops, nor the climate, tropical and unsuitable for feed-grain production, allow for the easy satisfaction of food needs with local production. This has been made more difficult by the post-1990 disintegration of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the collapse of Cuban exports and imports and the loss of the preferential terms of trade of Cuban sugar for Soviet oil. In addition, during this time there has been a tighter U.S. blockade and increasing U.S. hostility. This is the “periodo especial” (special period) announced by Fidel Castro in 1990. By 1993, as Cuban production and imports plummeted, the daily intake of the average Cuban citizen had descended to 1863 kilocalories, including 46 grams of protein and 26 grams of fat, all figures well below FAO recommended minimums for a healthy diet.

It was obvious that something had to be done, and a rapid increase in imports of foodstuffs or inputs to food production was out of the question. The bywords for food security, by necessity, had to be self-reliance and, to the extent possible, self-sufficiency: a tall order for any Caribbean economy, and doubly so for an economy under a hostile blockade by a powerful neighbor.

Cuba had to make full, efficient use of all available resources related to agriculture to (1) produce food directly using domestic inputs, (2) earn foreign exchange by exporting food and other cash crops (such as tobacco, sugar, and coffee), and/or (3) produce previously imported inputs into food production (such as petroleum) to allow the importation of indispensable necessities such as powdered milk, thus assuring the availability of food supplies and the stability of their flow.

A number of approaches have been used to put these overall strategies into practice over the last decade. The first was to identify and put idle lands to use, sometimes in ingenious ways. The second was to develop new schemes of work organization, pricing mechanisms, and incentives to stimulate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the supply (and efficient use) of agricultural labor. The third approach involved researching, introducing, and disseminating new methods of work and technologies, including finding ways to minimize the need for hard currency expenditures on such things as petroleum and protein-rich animal feed. Since such dollar expenditures cannot be totally eliminated they also increased efforts to penetrate dollar markets with agricultural goods (food and non-food) so that these dollars—or at least those that end up in government hands—can be used, in part, to support food production and to import goods still needed for food production or for the direct needs of the population.

Creating “New Land”

Eighty percent of Cuba’s population is urban. The Cuban government, acting through its Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Urban Agriculture (created in 1994), and the National Urban Agriculture Group established soon thereafter, started promoting the approach of creating “new land” for cultivation as a way of finding local solutions to the food problem in Havana and elsewhere.

For this purpose it created three kinds of “new” land. The first of these, termed organoponicos, were gardens consisting of raised-bed containers filled with compost and manure-rich soil (often transported from elsewhere) constructed on lots that had been paved over, compacted, or were otherwise infertile.

The second form of land creation was to bring existing fertile land currently lying fallow, in vacant lots and parks or belonging to enterprises/collectives, into food production. Such land is usually already in state hands, in which case it is put to use by granjas (farms) and empresas estatales (state enterprises) to produce for the market or to fulfill ration and other commitments by the state, or as gardens for autoconsumo, that is, to meet the needs of the workforces associated with various state enterprises such as factories, farms, sugar cane complexes, schools, and hospitals.

The third form of new land included cultivating the patios and yards next to people’s houses.

Another innovation has been the huerto intensivo (intensive garden), which employs intensive gardening methods to maximize yield in small areas. Vegetables are planted close together on raised beds enriched with organic matter to provide adequate nutrition for the plants, but without retaining walls.

These initiatives are typically run by the state, collectives or cooperatives. However, local governments also assign rights to land to private individuals in the form of parcelas, so-called popular gardens, for as long as they are kept in production. Even privately-owned land can be assigned to would-be gardeners or farmers, unless the owner brings the land to a productive state within six months.

Finally, there has been a proliferation of backyard gardening, the so-called patios, propelled by campaigns led by a mass-based neighborhood civic organization, the Committee for the Defense the Revolution (CDR), and reminiscent of the victory gardens movement in the United States during the Second World War. By the summer of 2003, the number of patios in production had exceeded 300,000, with a goal for the future of over half a million patios, primarily aimed at increases in fruit production.

By the end of 2002, the goal of providing every settlement of over fifteen houses with its own food production capacity—whether organiponicos, group gardens, or individual plots—had essentially been met, and over 18,000 hectares were being cultivated in urban agriculture in and around cities.

The full-use goal has also been pursued outside of the urban setting with land left fallow or underutilized being given away to people willing to work. Export crops like coffee, cacao, and tobacco and food crops such as rice are being grown under such plans on hundreds of thousands of hectares.

There was also one more, unusual manner, in which “new lands” became available for food crops in 2002—a government decision to close down about half of the sugar mills, and convert the land (about 1 million hectares) to food production and reforestation. About 246,000 hectares (including about 100,000 in 2003) will be devoted to annual crops aside from rice, representing a 73 percent increase of the area devoted to these crops.

Using Labor More Efficiently

The reorganization of the work process and the provision of proper incentives to workers have been the primary avenues to enhance the efficiency of labor. In 1998, agricultural as well as other enterprises began to take part in a new type of management process—the Sistema de Perfeccionamiento Empresarial (loosely translated as the System of Advanced Management). Under this system, enterprises start by keeping improved records. They then go through a diagnostic process of identifying current deficiencies and the potential for their resolution. Finally, they propose plans in the areas of labor and wage policy, management structures, and their choice of economic and efficiency indicators to be used to evaluate their progress.

There is a concerted effort to establish fair socialist norms of distribution in the area of cooperative or collective production in agriculture, where over one million Cubans work. The principle involved is stated as “pago por los resultades finales,” pay according to the final results—the more you produce, the more you get paid. In the agricultural sector the main thrust has been in the creation of organizational forms that make this approach possible. This was the primary reason for the 1993 program of “linking people to the land,” breaking up state farms into smaller cooperative farms.

The breakup of state farms has made individuals or small work teams completely responsible for production on a given piece of land, thus making it feasible to tie their incomes to the amount actually produced on that area. Small farms worked by small groups of workers (mostly family based) have been established within agricultural enterprises still run by the state. These farms are directly subordinate to the director of the larger enterprise, and workers are paid according to the results they achieve.

Having organized work around individual or small group responsibility, the question of providing appropriate material incentives, of course, still remains. Pay for results, certainly, but exactly how much? Prices paid for agricultural products still constitute the primary material incentive. Beginning in 1994, the prices of food sold to the population, outside of the ration-book channel, were liberalized with the establishment of markets where all suppliers—private farms, cooperatives, and state farms—could sell their produce at whatever price the market would bear under the given supply and demand conditions. Prices paid for deliveries to the state have been increased for selected products, such as milk, beans, coffee, and tobacco. Tax policy is also being used to stimulate food production and urban marketing, including tax exemptions for small farmers and preferential taxation in the farmers’ markets of the city of Havana at 5 percent of sales, compared with 15 percent in the rest of the country.

Given the dual dollar-peso Cuban economy, some workers are paid part of their salary in dollars or given access to goods, like bicycles, work clothes, and shoes, and various other goods that are otherwise only available in dollar-only stores. In-kind incentives, such as better housing and use of rest and recreation facilities, are also used to stimulate production.

New Technologies Replace Imports

One of the serendipitous results of the Cuban crisis has been the forced change from conventional farming practices to organic farming. Cut off from favorable trade agreements with the Soviet Union and its allies a decade ago, and unable to afford buying on the international market, Cuba has become a gigantic laboratory for farming without petroleum and petroleum derivatives. From pest control to fertilization to soil preparation, chemistry is out and biology is in. The Crop Protection Institute operates over 220 centers that provide cheap and plentiful beneficial insects and microorganisms that attack plant pests. At hundreds of vermicompost centers, worms are digging through and then excreting organic waste to produce, in 2003, one million tons of natural compost per year—just one of the new ways in which farmers are trying to improve poor quality urban and rural soil. There are very rapid increases in the production of various types of organic compost, the quantity of such materials jumping seven fold from 2001 to 2002, reaching fifteen million tons in 2003. The Ministry of Agriculture has supported this process with a network of extension agents and supply stores. By 1997, in Havana alone, there were sixty-seven extension agents and twelve so-called seed houses. Currently in Havana, this effort is centered in the tiendas consultario agricola (TCAs), agricultural consulting stores. The number of TCAs is projected to rise to fifty, employing five hundred professional extension agents and technicians. The TCAs offer technical advice along with seeds, soil improvers, biological products, and technical literature. The extension agent plays the key role as disseminator of information about services offered by the TCA and communicator of scientific-technical advice and information to the urban agriculturalists. Across Cuba, urban agriculture employs the services of close to ten thousand professionals and over forty thousand technicians.

Progress is also being made in the main agricultural production regions in rural areas. Especially significant increases in production are being achieved for potatoes and rice. A very encouraging technological development is the introduction of a new approach to growing rice. This is called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and is promoted world-wide by, among others, the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. While its application is in its very beginning stages, where tried, this system has doubled or even tripled rice yields in Cuba, as elsewhere in the third world, while reducing seed, water, and petroleum requirements. Optimistic rice experts are claiming that Cuba is potentially on its way to self-sufficiency in rice, and, in the future, will be able to use its excess rice production as animal feed! Potato production is another success story—although not an example of organic agriculture. Cuba still tries to maintain the supply of synthetic fertilizer needed for potato cultivation. The yields achieved have been impressive for a tropical island: in 1999, 23 tons/hectare, which in Latin America is second only to Argentina’s 25–27 tons/hectare, and exceeds the European average if one includes Russia. For comparison, Canada’s yield is 27–28 tons/hectare. Newly introduced technologies, such as new irrigation techniques (89 percent of the potato crop is irrigated), and new crop varieties have helped Cuba greatly improve potato production.

The general turn to organic agriculture and the renewed use of animal traction power (2,400 teams of oxen labor in the City of Havana) has produced the tremendous savings of imported energy and other products derived from petroleum. In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture is using less than 50 percent of the diesel fuel it used in 1989, less than 10 percent of the chemical fertilizers, and less than 7 percent of the synthetic insecticides. In fact, all aspects of food production are daily battlegrounds in the fight to save energy!

Penetrating Markets that Pay in U.S. Dollars

There are at least three mechanisms through which non-sugar agricultural production can contribute to the dollar earnings needed to achieve food security in Cuba—and in the Cuban discourse it is always stressed that these dollars are needed to meet the food requirements of the population.

First, there are the stores that sell to tourists, as well as to Cubans, for dollars. Cubans have been able to hold and circulate dollars legally since 1993. Cubans can obtain dollars either through remittances from relatives living abroad (primarily in the United States) or by earning dollars in Cuba (as tips from tourism, among other options). These stores are called tiendas de recaudacion de divisa (TRDs), loosely translated as foreign exchange capturing stores.

Food and other agricultural product sales in the TRDs surpass $200 million per year. No stone is being left unturned in trying to capture sales—in the first ten months of 2000, $22,000 came through the efforts of the beekeepers of Ciego de Avila from their sales of honey and its derivatives, including cosmetics, in the dollar-based stores and at shops in tourist hotels.

Second, there is the provision of inputs to the tourism sector. One of the problems of Cuba’s burgeoning tourism industry (about 1.7 million tourists in 2002) has been retaining the dollars that come in with the tourists. At the beginning of the tourism push in the early 1990s, most inputs into tourism, including food, were imported. There is in principle no reason why the ornamental flowers, lettuce, and mangoes served in Cuban hotels could not be grown in Cuba. The Ministry of Agriculture has had some success in its efforts to increase the quality and reliability of food delivery to tourist hotels, but the results remain well below potential. By 2001 only about 61 percent of all inputs into the tourism industry were of Cuban origin.

The last way for the state to earn dollars through sale of agricultural products is through exports. In addition to traditional export sectors like tobacco, coffee, and by now, citrus fruits, others such as apiculture and the shellfish industry have begun making contributions. Lest it seem a little odd for a country under nutritional stress to export foodstuffs in the quest for food security, it makes good sense to export high price foods like honey and shellfish to increase the availability of other foods. In fact, in 2001 the food imports and exports of Cuba were almost exactly balanced in value terms.

Access to Food

In the previous section, we surveyed Cuba’s efforts—through production and importation—to assure the availability and stability of food supplies in sufficient quantities to feed its people. Now, we turn to a discussion of how Cuba tries to achieve the equally, if not more, important goal of securing access to the available food supplies. It is, of course, not enough for a country to produce enough food per person, on average. Each person, individually, must receive enough food. The failure to have adequate and fair food distribution has resulted in many examples of malnutrition or even famine in societies that produce sufficient amounts of foodstuffs per capita.

Cuba tries to keep food within the physical and economic reach of its population in a number of different ways. One of the most important is the existence of various entitlements to food. The Cuban Revolution, since its inception, has used rationing as a means to bring social equity into its system of food distribution. In 1998, rationing guaranteed 5 lbs. of rice, 1 lb. of beans, and 3 lbs. of sugar per person per month. Chicken, eggs, fish, ham, and soy meal as well as potatoes, tomatoes, and vegetables were, even if irregularly, available in small quantities at a nominal cost. It should also be noted here, that every month, out of its agricultural production, the state delivers 28 lbs. of food per bed to hospitals, 13 lbs. per child to child care centers, and 10 lbs. per student to schools.

There are also voluntary redistributions of food, especially of the produce obtained in the popular gardens or parcelas. Some of this happens spontaneously, as productive urban farmers share their bounty with needy neighbors (especially the elderly) out of social solidarity. Some local governments more or less insist on “voluntary” contributions to local schools and hospitals, as a kind of social rent they feel justified in charging, because the use of land was given at no charge.

In order to help keep food prices within the reach of the population, the government has taken carefully designed actions. Although the opening and spread of farmers’ markets after 1994 provided incentives for producers and tremendously increased the variety of produce for sale, the prices in these markets are high enough to preclude the participation of many if not most Cubans.

A partial solution to the problem of high prices in farmers’ markets has been the establishment of state-based competitors. In 1998, the Ministry of Agriculture began a network of markets, supplied with production from state enterprises. Prices at these placitas topadas (limited price) markets are kept below those in the farmers’ markets although the variety of products is more limited.

The government has pursued policies that make dollars, which earlier had been restricted to families receiving remittances from abroad and to workers in tourism who receive tips in dollars, available to more Cubans. As an incentive to some workers in sectors that do not regularly earn dollars directly, the government pays part of their salary directly in dollars. Offices have been established throughout Havana so that pesos can be changed into dollars (and vice versa) at a fairly stable “market” rate, currently twenty-six pesos to the dollar. As a result, the proportion of the population having some access to the dollar, and thus able to buy consumer goods (including food), which are not available in the peso markets, rose from 44 percent in 1996 to 62 percent in 1999.

Finally, access to food has been facilitated by the opportunity for cost-free access to the major means of production for food, namely, land. This principle has enabled work collectives, from state farms and industrial enterprises to schools and hospitals, to put nearby idle land to good use by raising crops and animals for the consumption of the workers in work-place cafeterias. It has also enabled individuals who are not officially integrated into the agricultural workforce on state farms, such as retirees, to ask for small parcels of land to produce their own food.

What is the Outcome?

What kind of fruit have all of these efforts and policies borne in Cuba? Perhaps the one unquestionable success is to be found in the production of vegetables and starchy tubers and plantains—by 2000 the country surpassed the pre-crisis levels of 1989.

The brightest achievements in this area no doubt belong to the essentially crisis-created effort in urban agriculture, which, starting early in the crisis in Havana and bursting dynamically onto the national scene in recent years, has proved to be an outstanding contributor to food production, as well as a valuable source of employment and income for the urban population. In 2003, over 200,000 workers were employed in this sector, 35,000 new jobs having been created over the previous year amounting to 22 percent of all new jobs in the Cuban economy.

In general, there are very encouraging signs of increased production and efficiency. In 1999, there were gains in yields for sixteen of eighteen major crops, including not only vegetables, tubers, and plantains, but also corn, beans, rice, fruits, and coffee. Potato, cabbage, malanga, bean, and pepper yields are superior to those of Central America and above the average yields in the world. All of the provinces in Cuba increased their productions of vegetables, tubers, and plantains, and thirteen broke historical production records. Production figures for vegetables speak for themselves (in millions of tons): 1997, 0.1; 1999, 0.9; 2000, 1.7; and 2002, over 3. The results for 2003 are expected to exceed this achievement, 1.7 million tons having been harvested in the first six months of the year.

As a result, by mid-2000, vegetable and fresh herb sales nationwide had reached a level of 469 grams per day per capita, well above the FAO recommended amount of 300 grams per day. Cienfuegos and Ciego de Avila lead the nation with 867 and 756 grams per day respectively, while Havana reached 622 grams per day by November 2000, and Sancti Spiritus, Granma, Pinar del Rio, Las Tunas, and Guantanamo were all above 500 grams per day. By March 2003, Havana Province was producing 943 grams per day per capita.

Of course, major problem areas remain, especially regarding milk, meat, and eggs, which continue to require imported animal feed that Cuba cannot afford. Rice, usually grown on large state farms, has also consistently fallen short of planned levels of production.

Even in these areas, there is some recovery and hope for the future. In the case of rice, for example, besides the expectations surrounding the SRI technology mentioned above, there are promising beginnings in the “popular rice” movement, inspired by the successes in urban agriculture and attempting to duplicate its results in rice cultivation. In 2003, 300,000 tons of rice will be produced in the country, up from 172,000 tons in 1999, reducing rice imports by more than 50 percent.

In the midst of all these transformations, it is important to note, that, in contrast to the shrinking role of the state in many third world countries in the current neoliberal era, in Cuba, the state and other collective forms of economic organization continue to play a major role, both in production and in facilitation and support. The most important bottom line is that, by the end of 2000, food availability in Cuba reached daily per capita figures of 2,600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization considers 2,400 calories per day and 72 grams protein per day to be an adequate diet. Despite the remaining problem areas, the acute food shortage crisis is essentially over. Cuban society has successfully made, while under considerable duress, heroic efforts to construct its own version of food security for its population, and has perhaps shown the way for other societies. On March 31, 2003, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in the presence of the Cuban ambassador and the FAO representative in Venezuela, inaugurated the first Venezuelan organoponico in the center of Caracas. Other third world countries would do well to learn from the Cuban experience—most countries can produce sufficient food and ensure an adequate diet for all their people.

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