Cuba and a Visit from Abroad
During July, my father-in-law, Pablo Hernandez, visited our family in Havana. Pablo is a small farmer. It was his first real vacation, first trip to Cuba, first extended time in a big city, first time seeing the ocean.
Pablo, 66, has seen a lot in his life having brought up ten children in the war-torn Nicaraguan countryside of the 1970s and 1980s; living first under the brutal Somoza dictatorship and later participating in programs of the Sandinista revolution. He and his wife now manage a small coffee farm in the mountains.
Like many other visitors to Cuba who sympathize with the Revolution, he came with a predisposed positive image. He had followed the events leading up to Cuba’s 1959 revolutionary victory as best he could from the Nicaraguan highlands, and he has listened to Radio Havana Cuba and Radio Reloj since the 1960s.
When receiving guests I always try to showcase the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution by exposing them to the everyday life of Cuba’s committed and hard working people.
At the same time, I feel the need to break romantic visions of utopia perpetrated at times by the Cuban media and the solidarity movement as a reaction to the relentless US hostility. Gentle exposure to the country’s problems, as seen by everyday Cubans, aids in understanding this remarkable and beleaguered island nation.
By the third day of his visit, after walking miles around the city and touring the extensive restorations that make up Old Havana, Pablo remarked on the great investment the Spanish colonists had made in building infrastructure. It was clear, he stated, that Spain didn’t want to let go of Cuba, noting that Cuba didn’t win its independence until more than 75 years after the Central American countries. In Cuba, he said, the Spanish “had obviously come to stay forever.” On their heels, the US planned the same, he noted.
Pablo was amazed by how relatively calm things were and “how people walk the streets at all hours of the night without the fear that comes on just after darkness” in cities and even larger towns in Nicaragua. “It seems strange not having to be looking over my shoulder,” he commented.
A FARMERS PERSPECTIVE AND CUBA’S FOOD SECURITY
Farmers are known for having a lot of common sense. Driving through a portion of western Pinar del Rio province, Pablo was surprised to see so much green, unused pastureland with very few cows. He asked me why. The observation was obvious, but after 48-plus years of revolution the reason was not.
I mentioned the fact that Cuba is reliant on a sizeable amount of milk powder imports to satisfy the needs of the island’s children. “You shouldn’t buy what you can produce,” he noted.
A couple of days later on July 26, Cuba’s most important national holiday, commemorating the 1953 attack on the Batista dictatorship, we listened to Raul Castro’s keynote speech from Camaguey. Interestingly, he seemed to echo Pablo’s commentary.
A century of dependence on imports, first from the US and then from the Soviet Union and Socialist Bloc, left Cuba weakened when the latter vanished in 1991. Now that a recovery is underway, the lessons of the past are having an effect on the present.
Raul highlighted the stability in the country during the trying year since his brother Fidel temporarily stepped down, “a diametrically different impact from that expected by our enemies, who were wishing for chaos.” However, he made it clear that there is much room for improvement.
It’s no secret that food security, along with further energy savings, represent two greatly needed boosts to the Cuban economy. At present, the country is heavily burdened with the high cost of both imported food products and fuel.
Raul said there is no valid excuse for Cuba’s need to earmark a billion dollars annually for importing milk and other foodstuffs. Setting the tone for changes in the country’s internal agriculture policies, he stated:
“Currently, the price of powdered milk is over 5,200 dollars per ton. Therefore, should domestic production not continue to increase, to meet consumption needs in 2008, we would have to spend 340 million dollars in milk alone, more than three times what was spent in 2004. That is, if prices do not continue to rise.
“In the case of milled rice, it was priced at 390 dollars a ton in 2006 and is sold today at 435 a ton. Some years ago, we were buying frozen chicken at 500 dollars a ton. We made plans on the assumption its price would go up to 800; in fact, it went up to its current price of 1,186 dollars.
“This is the case with practically all products the country imports to meet the essential needs of the population; the people then purchase these products at [subsidised] prices which have remained practically unchanged despite these circumstances.
“And I am talking of products that I think can be grown here --it seems to me that there is plenty of land-- and we have had good rains last year.”
“No one, no individual or country, can afford to spend more than what they have. It seems elementary, but we do not always think and act in accordance with this inescapable reality.
“We face the imperative of making our land produce more; and the land is there to be tilled either with tractors or with oxen, as it was done before the tractor existed. We need to expeditiously apply the experiences of producers whose work is outstanding, be they in the state or farm sector, on a mass scale, but without improvising, and to offer these producers adequate incentives for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat.
“To reach these goals, the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced,” said Raul Castro.
Pablo Hernandez was encouraged by what he saw and heard. With his farmer’s optimism he expressed his confidence that “Cuba must and can produce what it needs.”