Cooperatives Drive Cuban Agriculture

Oct 21, 2016  | 7 min  | Ep4209

Just days ago, the Obama administration eased more economic restrictions on Cuba including more medical collaboration, plus relaxing monetary import limits on rum and cigars.  

Since the first announcement of renewed diplomatic ties in 2014, more Americans have been visiting the Pearl of the Antilles.

Currently only 12 categories of visitors can make the flight south. One of which is journalism. Our Josh Buettner accompanied the American Agricultural Editors’ Association to the communist island nation and files this report.   

Cuba’s industrial agricultural system all-but collapsed along with the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago.  In addition to food, the communist superpower had provided the Caribbean island nation with discounted oil, machinery and farm chemicals.  Moscow also assisted local farmers by purchasing a majority of Cuban sugar and citrus at above-market prices.  But cut-off from the inputs of its benefactor, the full brunt of the 1960 U.S. economic embargo or ‘blockade’ as it’s known in Cuba, came to bare on the former Soviet satellite.

Miguel Salcines/Vivero Alamar: “As time goes by people want more sophisticated and specialized things.  And in terms of that we can do a lot.”

Miguel Salcines, a former government agronomist, is a founding member of Vivero Alamar, a 27-acre organic urban farm cooperative on the outskirts of Havana.  According to the Ministry of Agriculture, it’s one of 10,000 urban operations in Cuba that employ some 360,000 people.  Many urban farms were born out of the 1990’s crisis known as “The Special Period”, when lacking modern farming supplies, Cuba went organic in the name of self-sufficiency.  

Salcines grows produce, herbs and sugarcane - harvesting 300 tons of vegetables for 50,000 people each year.  And with over three-quarters of Cuba’s 11 million people living in and around its cities, urban farms help the state maintain food security as part of the social contract.

Juan Jose Leon/Cuban Ministry of Agriculture: “It’s easier to bring agriculture to the city than people to the countryside.”

The majority of Cuba’s farm real estate was nationalized and confiscated by Cuban revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro over half a century ago. Subsequent agrarian reforms redistributed land among farmers and peasants, and by necessity, cost-sharing cooperatives emerged.

Another round of land distribution in “The Special Period”, gave way to a new kind of co-op called UBPC or Basic Unit of Cooperative Production.  Vivero Alamar is a UBPC that enjoys notoriety for its sustainable organic methods.

In light of success stories, starting from scratch on complimentary land, often with degraded soil, performance clauses, a lack of incentives and few resources has been a difficult sell for Cuban authorities.

Juan Jose Leon/Cuban Ministry of Agriculture: “Right now there are a lot of people struggling, fighting and even dying for a piece of land in Latin America, and we are struggling and fighting for people to accept the land.”

The Ministry of Agriculture says today 71 percent of Cuba’s agricultural production is done under several cooperative models, with 1,084 UBPC’s alone operating on over 6 million acres.

Under the Cuban agricultural model, 80 percent of most crops must be marketed through the state, which also sets the price.  But beyond legal quotas, Cuban farmers are now free to sell at prices the market will bear, and many do so at open air markets operated by cooperatives.

But farmers like Salcines wouldn’t mind also shipping their products to the United States, where demand for organic produce outweighs supply.

Miguel Salcines/Vivero Alamar: “I’ve had the chance to go to the states several times, and the only thing I asked for is to be taken to the supermarkets.  Organic markets, inorganic markets, the big shopping centers and markets.  This is an opportunity for business.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack brought up organic trade opportunities to a Cuban agricultural delegation in his home state of Iowa several months ago.  Both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding earlier this year, creating a limited sharing dialogue in agriculture.  One USDA official recently told Market to Market that, ideally, a Technical Cooperation Agreement will follow, allowing for better collaboration.

Its urban agricultural model notwithstanding, Cuba still imports most of its food.  Some say access to American tech and know-how could help increase production, while U.S. agricultural groups desire greater admittance to an elusive market just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Paul Johnson/U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba: “I think what we’re trying to do is build this relationship and this model built on comparative advantage.”

Paul Johnson is co-chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a collection of over 100 farm interests, formed in 2014, to lobby national lawmakers about improved agricultural trade relations.  The group hopes a bill recently introduced in Congress can tack on to previous legislative groundwork and clear the way for free trade and travel with Cuba.  Parties on all sides tend to agree that increased American tourism will spur demand for food products and drive commerce.

Paul Johnson/U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba: “They’re currently importing 74% of their food needs – about $2 billion a year, which is not sustainable for them.”

In 2001, The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act first gave U.S. producers the opportunity to export corn, rice, poultry and other products to Cuba.  But because of the embargo, the Cuban government is forced to pay 100 percent cash up-front, in Euros through a third party banks for their purchases.

In turn, U.S. agricultural trade with Cuba peaked at just below $700 million in 2008 but has plummeted ever since, squeaking out less than $200 million in 2015.  Trade advocates concede ground is being lost to the European Union, Latin America and Asia, but claim a level playing field would favor the U.S. every time.  And recent presidential actions to end restrictions on Cuban rum and cigars aside, it will take an act of Congress to lift the embargo.

Paul Johnson/U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba: “We have a number of things in our favor.  Number one, the agriculture community in the United States is squarely behind this, which is really powerful.”

While farm lobbyists remain hopeful, there are other players at the table.  Several firmly support keeping the embargo in place until Cuba compensates American owners for land and property expropriated by the Castros.  In the upcoming weeks, Market to Market will explore the U.S. Certified Claims against Cuba, which, with interest, total $8 billion.

VOICE OFFSCREEN: “It’s a sugar mill.  It consists of 12,000 acres.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.



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