Cuban agriculture: a sustainable path / FRFI 205 Oct / Nov 2008

FRFI 205 October / November 2008

Cuban agriculture: a sustainable path

Roberto Perez, Cuban biologist and permaculturist [permaculture is the study of sustainable, organic, small-scale agricultural production], toured Britain in September with the Permaculture Association to promote Cuba’s achievements in organic agriculture and urban farming. While in Britain, he spoke to FRFI.


FRFI: To what extent can the example of Cuba’s achievements in sustainable agriculture be applied to capitalist countries?
Perez: I believe that capitalist societies are too based on individualism to allow these necessary changes. But as the crisis escalates, people will be forced to organise in this way. There will be no alternative faced with the combined effects of climate change, biofuels and peak oil [when oil reserves begin to run out]. Extreme climatic events – floods, droughts and rising sea levels – will affect everyone. If business as usual continues, it will exhaust resources. This situation cannot be solved with technological gadgets or market solutions. It’s necessary to go down a sustainable path of community-based solutions, social awareness and social justice.

Recent agricultural reforms in Cuba, allowing greater use of land by individuals and families, have been interpreted in the British press as a step towards capitalism. What is going on?
This change is only allowing more people to use land on the basis of usufruct – allowing the use of the fruit to the people that work the land. They are producing food for the people, not to make a lot of profit. Conventional agriculture – using chemicals, heavy machinery, lots of energy – was not guaranteeing the food security that we need under the US blockade. So if right now small producers are more efficient and more sustainable they are also part of the revolution. It’s not capitalism. They are revolutionary people and they are helping the country to go forward.

Cuba currently imports most of its food, and increasing domestic food production has been identified as a priority. Will this limit further gains in sustainable development?
To say we import most of our food does not reflect the reality. Cuba needs to import food for social consumption, such as wheat and other food that we cannot produce because of our tropical climate. But we are producing more food than ever before. We eat a lot of pork and it’s all produced locally. Some cities of Cuba produce 70% of the vegetables that they consume. So we are on the road to self-sustainability, but based on efficiency.

We can’t produce everything in the country because we only have limited arable land and a lot of our land is degraded as a result of capitalist development up to 1959. 85% of the ecosystem was destroyed and this was exacerbated by the conventional agricultural system that was applied between 1965 and 1991. We need to keep a balance between the exports produced in the country, like tobacco, coffee and other products, and what we produce for ourselves. The blockade limits our ability to exchange goods and because of that we have to keep increasing domestic production.

If the price of food keeps increasing it will be very bad, not just for Cuba but for any poor country, because people depend on imports to eat. It could make some governments look for conventional alternatives and use chemicals to increase yields in the short term. I think that after 18 years of success in organic farming and urban farms we need to keep persisting. We have proved that sustainable agriculture can feed millions of people. The sustainable agriculture movement will eventually face a challenge in Cuba, because now we have allies like Venezuela that provide affordable oil and oil products. After the hurricanes we need to recover so I think it will be necessary to have a balance. There needs to be an internal discussion in Cuba.

What effect has the Energy Revolution had on Cuba’s energy security and emissions levels?

Apart from increasing by 10% forest cover above the 1959 level, thereby making our small contribution to having carbon sinks without the big money of the IMF or World Bank, we have engaged in the Energy Revolution. This included the decentralisation of energy generation so that now we don’t depend on big plants for electricity. There are new generators throughout the whole country. They burn oil or diesel, but they are very efficient. They can be switched on or off according to demand and create small closed circuits so that they can guarantee supply after disasters like hurricanes.

We changed all the incandescent bulbs in the country for energy saving bulbs, supplied by the government. People can also change, at affordable prices, their old inefficient fridges, air conditioning and cooking appliances.

The government is committed to powering the more than 100,000 households that are off the grid with renewable energy, so many family doctor clinics and schools in rural areas are solar-powered. Micro-hydro-electricity is promising in the mountains and wind turbines are being installed as the capital needed to set them up becomes available.

What is your view on the use of biofuels in energy generation?

What we are seeing right now are not biofuels, they are agrofuels. Agribusinesses has found a new commodity and they don’t care if people are starving. Cuba’s position is that this will cause hunger for a lot of people. It’s criminal to produce ethanol from cereals like corn because the energy it takes to produce it is more than the energy it will give. Even though Cuba has crops like sugar cane, not one hectare of our land will be used for agrofuels if the food is needed.

Cereal reserves are currently at their lowest level for 40 years, and this practice will make food prices even higher, which is already causing riots for food in some poor countries. You can see how difficult the situation is in Haiti, with people so desperate they are eating mud. If we can use some of the resources that people in rich countries just waste, then we can save a few million people on this planet every year from hunger.

Cuba: in the eye of the storm / FRFI 205 Oct / Nov 2008

FRFI 205 October / November 2008

Cuba: in the eye of the storm

Between 30 August and 7 September, two Category 4 hurricanes passed through Cuba, wreaking destruction on a mass scale. More than 300,000 homes were damaged, the country’s electricity grid was plunged into chaos and thousands of hectares of crops were destroyed, at a cost of around $5bn. Cuba’s development plans have been set back, but through all the turmoil, Cuba’s organised response shows how socialism is capable of defending human life. LOUIS BREHONY reports.

Hurricane Gustav
Gustav struck Cuba on the afternoon of 30 August. 60,000 people had been evacuated the previous night. Gustav’s 150mph winds damaged or destroyed 90,000 homes and knocked down 80 electricity pylons in Pinar del Rio alone. On the Isle of Youth, the entire electricity grid was brought down. In Cuba no one lost their life to Gustav, but there were 138 deaths in other countries across the Caribbean and the US.

Hurricane Ike
A week later, Hurricane Ike hit. 2.6 million people were relocated, a quarter of Cuba’s population. The heavy rainfall led the Cuyaguateje River to burst its banks, leaving whole towns in western Pinar del Rio cut off.

Seven people were killed as a result of Ike. In the past decade 22 Cubans have been killed by hurricanes. In neighbouring Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, more than 550 people have been killed this hurricane season alone and one million people made homeless.

In the US, the world’s richest country, up to 65 people died when Ike hit. Despite the lessons learned from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when 1,800 people died, and despite warnings from national weather forecasters that residents of coastal Texas faced ‘certain death’ if they refused to evacuate, hundreds of thousands were unable or unwilling to move. Although some buses were laid on for the elderly or disabled or those lacking their own transport, most residents were left to fend for themselves. Severe petrol shortages made this impossible for many; others found themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams stretching from Houston to northern Texas. When people did reach help, emergency centres were grossly under-resourced. In Galveston, the area worst hit by Ike, 40% of the population did not evacuate. As Newsweek reported (19 September 2008), many were too elderly or infirm to withstand evacuation or too poor to organise it – with no car, no relatives to stay with, no money for a hotel and unable to take extra days off work. Newsweek pointed too to a basic mistrust of the authorities after experiences of other hurricanes – the botched evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005 killed ten times more people than the hurricane itself – and the fear that, as happened after Katrina, if they left they might never be allowed to come back.

Cuba: socialism saves lives
In 2005 Cuba was recognised by the UN’s World Disaster Conference as ‘a model for hurricane management in developing countries’. The conference highlighted strong commitment by public authorities, public awareness enshrined in the education system from primary school up to university level and the involvement of the whole population so that ‘potentially vulnerable populations play an indispensable role in saving other lives and their own’.

This system is overseen by the assemblies of people’s power and the revolutionary armed forces. Each house receives an evacuation plan long in advance, and public evacuation drills are held regularly. Evacuations are ordered 48 hours before storms hit. Schools are immediately turned into shelters, with a doctor in each. Volunteers make sure there are enough blankets, water and food. Hospitals, water pumps and other key services have their own power sources so they can carry on when the grid goes down. This is how socialism protects its people.

Rebuilding despite the blockade
Cuba has a lot of rebuilding to do. 300,000 homes have been affected. Reconstruction work has started on thousands of homes across the island but is hampered by lack of resources. The US government has refused to lift the blockade (see letter from Teresita Trujillo).

Meanwhile, help has been flowing in from Cuba’s allies, including Brazil, Russia, China and Venezuela. $1 million was donated by Trinidad and Tobago, whose ambassador described
Cuba as an ‘example to the rest of the Caribbean’.

POLITICAL SOLIDARITY PRIORITY FOR CUBA

FRFI asked Teresita Trujillo, from the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, how people in Britain can best support Cuba in its reconstruction efforts. We reprint an edited version of her reply.

‘At this point our main priority from friends is political. The US administration is using the situation to mount another campaign against the Revolution. Their offer of humanitarian assistance is conditional on sending a mission to assess the damage. They are presenting the situation as if they were desperate to help and the Cuban authorities are refusing their assistance, while they say nothing about the blockade or about our request to get authorisation (even on temporary basis) to purchase construction materials from the US. Anti-Cuban organisations in the US, such as the Cuban-American National Foundation, are requesting an increase in the amount of money they can send their ‘partners’ in Cuba, and are manipulating the US media to present a picture of the situation that suits their interests.

The US authorities say that the Revolution is incapable of resolving the problems created by the hurricanes and that we are refusing their assessment mission because it will reveal that it was the inefficiency of the system that caused the damage to be so huge.

This is the time for the international community to put pressure on the US administration to end the blockade and to counter the distortions spread by the US. The recovery is going on quite quickly, but obviously part of the damage will have a long-term effect.’

To avoid bank transaction charges, send donations to Rock around the Blockade at BM RATB, London WC1N 3XX and we will forward them to the official Hurricane Damage Restoration account in Cuba. Cheques payable to Rock around the Blockade and marked ‘Hurricane Appeal’

Cuba: 4 articles / FRFI 206 Dec 2008 / Jan 2009

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

Improving access to land and cultivation in Cuba

On 23 November 2008, a collective of workers and farmers in San Agustin in Camaguey province, central-eastern Cuba, celebrated the first official hand-over of land in ‘usufruct’ (as a free loan) with a day of voluntary work in homage to Che Guevara. HELEN YAFFE reports
.

13 farmers each received their property titles in return for a commitment to cultivate 12.5 acres of land with vegetables, grains and fruits, as well as breeding cattle and other animals. This is part of a new campaign to give access to currently idle land to Cubans who apply to turn it to production. The producers do not pay rent, nor can they purchase the land, but it is granted in usufruct for ten years to individuals and for 25 years for collectives and cooperatives. The land cannot be sold or transferred to third parties and the new farmers of the land must pay taxes and sell an agreed proportion of their produce to the state at fixed prices.

This measure reflects a drive to increase production – without permanently changing property relations. It does not signify a preference for ‘private’ or decentralised production. This point was underlined by President Raul Castro who, whilst introducing the new law in July 2008, told the National Assembly: ‘I am a firm admirer and defender of large socialist state enterprises, be they agricultural, industrial, or otherwise.’

Low salaries and high food prices are a principal concern for the government and the people in Cuba, as they are for an increasing proportion of the world today, because although the population is protected by highly subsidised state provision covering all necessities, 84% of the basic food basket is imported, according to Magalys Calvo, Vice Minister of Economics (Granma, 26 February 2007). As a result of the dramatic global rise in prices, the volume of food imported in 2007 cost an extra $1.1bn to import in 2008, seriously jeopardising the country’s investment plans. In addition, Cubans augment their ration allowance with produce bought in markets and shops at relatively high prices. In the case of domestic produce, high prices mainly reflect low efficiency in agricultural and manufacturing output. In order for prices to go down, production and productivity must increase.

In July 2008, a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture’s municipal offices calculated that there were over two million hectares (about five million acres) of idle or under-utilised land nationwide. This will change quickly with the new law. In one week in September, 445,347 hectares of land in usufruct were applied for by 34,661 individuals or legal entities throughout the country to exploit free of charge. The vast majority of applications (26,800) were from individuals who have never owned land. They can receive up to 13.42 hectares (about 33 acres) each.

This will provide necessary employment for thousands of highly qualified agronomists who will be needed to support these new farmers with their expertise, potentially taking many of them out of other employment and reincorporating them into the state sector. New farmers will also receive help from the Credit and Service Cooperatives and from the National Association of Small Farmers. Those who hold land that is already in full production can expand their farms to 40 hectares (about 99 acres). 45% of land applications are for dairy-farming, an industry being stimulated with higher prices paid by the state for milk and meat. Another 41% of applicants intend to cultivate diversified crops.


Raising the age of retirement

In December 2008, Cubans will find out the results of a national consultation on proposals to raise the age of retirement by five years – from 60 to 65 years for men and from 55 to 60 years for women – when it is discussed in the National Assembly. The reform under consideration was proposed by Raul Castro in the July meeting of the Assembly, the highest decision-making body in Cuba with over 600 representatives from local areas and different sectors of society.

The current retirement ages relate to the much lower life expectancy for Cubans at the start of the revolutionary process that has transformed their human development indicators. Cuba is now categorised as a ‘high development’ country by the United Nations. The Social Security Law reforms are necessary to cope with an aging population – Cuba has the oldest population in the Americas and it continues to grow annually with rising life expectancy and reduced birth rates. Under current trends, by 2025 a quarter of the population will be over 60 years and there will be 770,000 fewer people of working age than in 2007. The proposal is part of the vital push to dramatically increase national production in order to reduce dependency on imports, whilst increasing exports and lowering domestic prices.

Throughout September and October, 80,000 assemblies were held to discuss the proposal involving 3.4 million workers in work centres throughout the island. The fact that these debates have involved over 30% of the island’s population – 70% of the total workforce – is another demonstration of how a socialist state endeavours to ensure true workers’ democracy. The system contrasts starkly with ours in Britain where, from the Home Office’s National Identity Card Scheme, to mass privatisations, to the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government consistently ignores public opposition to its decisions. Here we are passive subjects, in socialist Cuba they are active citizens!

If approved by the National Assembly in December, the changes will be implemented gradually over the following years. Speaking to a committee of the National Assembly, Social Security Minister Alfredo Morales said he hoped to be able to increase pensions by 20%. This second reform would be implemented alongside the first. Already, a new law introduced in July authorised retired school and university teachers who are able to return to work to receive the full salary, in addition to their pension. This is a provisional measure introduced to bridge the gap until the new retirement ages are implemented. It is also necessary to alleviate pressure on young and inexperienced ‘emergency teachers’, introduced with the decision that class sizes must be cut to a 20 student maximum. The government is also studying ways to increase the birth rates to offset the aging population.

Juventud Rebelde, newspaper of the Union of Young Communists (UJC), pointed out that ‘while in 1970 there were 7.1 active workers in Cuba for each retiree...as of 2007 it had declined to 3.2 to 1 [and] the projection for 2025 is only 2.3 workers for every retiree.’ Granma said that because of this decreasing ratio the retirement reforms must be taken up to ensure the country can ‘achieve greater economic development, which is the only way to continue supporting its high social expenditures, among them those of Social Security and Welfare.’ In December we will see if this bill gets passed by the National Assembly, but until then we can simply marvel at the organisation and political involvement of everyday Cuban people.

Luke Lucas

UN annual vote on the blockade

‘You are alone, isolated!’ Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque told outgoing US President Bush at the UN General Assembly on 29 October 2008 after the vote on Cuba’s proposal to lift the US blockade of Cuba. The overwhelming majority of votes were against the US blockade of Cuba for the 16th year in a row – so why is the blockade still in place? Yet again, the US has used its veto on the Security Council to overturn the decision. Some democracy! Of 192 UN member states, 185 voted in favour of the resolution to end the blockade. This is the highest vote yet. Three voted against: US, Israel and Palau (population 21,000); two abstained, Marshall Islands (population 61,000) and Micronesia (population 108,000).

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, the US blockade is increasingly recognised to have failed to destroy the revolutionary process. However, the blockade, which is illegal under international law, has resulted in massive avoidable economic hardships for the Cuban people over the last five decades. In 2006, Cuba compiled a comprehensive report detailing how the blockade had cost the Cuban economy over $86 billion since 1960. It remains to be seen what direction Barack Obama’s administration will take with regards to Cuba and the blockade.
End the US blockade of Cuba now!

Hannah Caller


UN annual vote on the blockade

In early November, Hurricane Paloma hit Cuba, the third major hurricane in ten weeks. Cuba yet again confirmed that socialism prioritises people. More than 1.2 million people in total were evacuated, no-one was left unprotected and no-one died.

‘Paloma’ means dove in Spanish, but Raul Castro nicknamed the hurricane ‘Imperial Eagle’ as he travelled round with other heads of the government and the army to visit some of those affected in the eastern provinces. In the small coastal town of Guayabal in Las Tunas, 100 of the 273 homes were totally destroyed and the rest damaged by coastal flooding with waves a metre high travelling 700 metres inland. In Santa Cruz del Sur in Camagüey, nearly 10,000 homes were damaged including 1,353 which totally collapsed. Many towns were left without electricity and telephone lines; roads were damaged, and agriculture was devastated in some areas and there was severe flooding. The Cuban people responded with their unwavering commitment and complete mobilisation to initiate recovery.

Cuba was already reeling from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The total cost of the damage inflicted by the three hurricanes is estimated at $10 billion, with half a million homes damaged. Raul Castro said: ‘We have the will to overcome, to confront these natural phenomena and draw the relevant lessons, given that we have to live with them, but the most important, the principal thing, is life’.

Cubans are now battling to reduce future damage and to find practical solutions to the problem of increasingly frequent and more violent hurricanes. Pinar del Rio province had 102,000 homes damaged by hurricanes between 2002 and 2005. 85,000 homes had been restored before the ‘nuclear strike’ – as Fidel Castro described the force of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav – which hit the region in September damaging another 98,000 homes.

Now in Pinar del Rio engineers and construction workers are installing for the first time and on a large scale a new type of roofing, more resistant to strong winds. The system has a simple and fast assembly procedure which does not require cranes and heavy operating equipment. The aim is to restore over 2,000 houses by the end of 2008 using this technology. To accelerate the process, local people are getting involved in reconstruction and brigades are being formed to train people from other provinces. The country is mobilising – only a revolutionary, empowered, disciplined and literate society could withstand these onslaughts and move forward. Viva Cuba socialista!

Hannah Caller

To make a financial donation to Cuba’s recuperation process, see Rock around the Blockade’s website at www.ratb.org.uk

 

Guantanamo: rule of law upheld – torture condemned / FRFI 207 Feb / Mar 2009

FRFI 207 February / March 2009

On 21 January 2009, President Obama made the long-awaited announcement that the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay will be closed within the year. This was followed by orders to:

• abolish the secret worldwide network of CIA ‘ghost prisons’
• ban the use of torture by restricting CIA operatives to the US Field Army Manual, which explicitly rules out the use of torture, coercion, physical abuse and threats
• end illegal ‘rendition flights’
• halt and review the use of the infamous ‘military commission’ courts.

The previous day, in his inauguration speech, Obama signalled the new US administration’s commitment to international treaties on human rights, in particular the Geneva Conventions.

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Che Guevara: A battle cry against imperialism

FRFI 169 October / November 2002

che flag

‘Let the flag under which we fight be the sacred cause of the liberation of humanity’

35 years ago this October, Ernesto Che Guevara was arrested, tortured and murdered by CIA-trained Bolivian soldiers. After playing a leading role in the Cuban Revolution, both in the war of liberation and in building socialism after 1959, he had travelled as a revolutionary first to Africa and then Bolivia, with the aim of carrying out in practice his call to build ‘two, three and many Vietnams’.

Che Guevara was a revolutionary fighter, an internationalist and, first and last, a communist. His political and economic writings remain vital weapons in the hands of all socialists and continue to inspire those fighting against imperialism around the world today. His example, far from being that of some long-forgotten student icon of the 1960s, remains as vibrant today as the triumph of Cuba’s socialist revolution that it embodies, and lives on in the pledge of successive generations of Cuban school children each morning: ‘We will be like Che!’ As imperialism prepares itself once again for war against the poor of the world, we do well to remember Che’s call: ‘Let every action be a battle cry against imperialism and a call for the unity of the peoples against the great enemy of the human race, the United States of North America.’

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