Through the years, Cuban farmers – or at least those whose families didn’t have their farm estates or agri-businesses seized when Fidel Castro came into power — have been living in a bubble.
They’ve been loyal subjects to their political leader, the long-time dictator who died last week, almost six months after his 90th birthday.
And I say, politics aside (if that’s possible in Cuba), farmers there deserve some respect.
Post-revolution, it was Cuban farmers who rose to the occasion, doing their best with virtually no modern technology, trying to keep other Cubans fed through the politically and economically tumultuous decades of Castro’s reign.
The U.S. embargo left Cuba leaning on imports from the limited number of countries that supported Castro’s brand of Communism, and later, narrowed further when the Soviet Union fell and the chief source of Cuban imports dried up.
On a recent agricultural media tour there, organized through the American Agricultural Editors Association, I saw farmers mostly line up in two camps.
In one, I saw those who manage the bigger farm co-ops, who are trying to balance the business of farming with their role as employment providers.
They’ve held their collective breath as (soon-to-be-former) U.S. President Barack Obama dangled freer trade in front of them. They know what it could mean to them, as far as markets and access to technology are concerned.
They also know their strengths, what they are capable of growing, and what they aren’t (not currently, anyway) – including rice and grain, which are among the commodities Cubans relish the most, particularly for bread.
They’ve been allowed to attend conferences abroad, to learn how to be better managers. They look to the future, to a freer Cuba.
Then there are the farm labourers. Many of them have jobs, albeit meagre and poor paying, as a result of his Castro’s policies. They supported the man, yes, but more so they appeared to me to support the sense of nationalism he was able to instill within them. His message: Many outside of Cuba are against you and have forsaken you. I am for you.
On one farm, a 50-something-year-old worker dressed in a Cuban flag tank top stopped in his tracks to address us silently by firmly pounding his heart, a clear nod to Cuban nationalism. He wasn’t zealous, angry, or boastful, he just wanted us to know where he stood.
Castro was not for freedom. As the world progressed, time stood still for Cuban farmers, and it has yet to move today. On my tour, it was common to see farmers engaged in the most basic and archaic of chores, predicated on manual labour: tilling the soil with beasts of burden, weeding by hand, watering with hoses instead of irrigation. They don’t choose this approach; they lack machinery and equipment. They are organic, but not by choice. They cannot afford inputs and besides, they don’t have access to much because of the U.S. embargo. Both restrictions are related.
Modern farmers need the freedom to learn from each other, to move agriculture into a new era of global consumer acceptance and responsibility.
More and more, consumers won’t accept food from countries where conditions exploit workers, livestock or the environment.
Raul Castro, who assumed control of Cuba in 2008 from his ailing brother, has a broader outlook than Fidel.
Raul was agriculture minister before taken over from Fidel. During one of his visits to Canada, I was surprised to be invited to a breakfast meeting in Guelph at the former College Inn, with him and a couple of his officials and one of the participants in my Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK) program. He didn’t want to talk politics or propaganda; rather, he wanted to learn more about how students can be involved in communicating about agriculture and agricultural research.
He seemed open minded. And many people have written about how Cuba has become more open under his leadership. So let’s have reasonable expectations as Raul moves Cuba into the 21st century.
But let’s also assume he will. Because restricting freedom, limiting access to information and to open dialogue with other farmers is wrong. The U.S. needs to lift the embargo, and Cuba needs to usher in an era of freedom.