Cuba: An Island of Opportunity for U.S. Agriculture -- As Well as a Threat
While export possibilities exist for wheat and corn, Cuba could change the world market for sugar
By Jørgen Lund Christiansen
Not many Cuban citizens are suffering from being overweight. The state ration of food per capita per month is six pounds of rice, six pounds of sugar, 12 eggs, half a pound of beans and two pounds of meat.
In addition, you get bread equivalent to three pieces of toast per day, plus an allowance of one liter of milk (a little more than a quart) per child seven years or younger.
The milk age used to be 14 years, but was lowered due to lack of it. Dairy cows in Cuba produce about one-fourth the milk of cows in Denmark or the U.S., because of inefficiencies and a lack of inputs.
In the old days – before the fall of The Berlin Wall -
there was more food, thanks to the support of comrades in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who supported the communist revolution in this Caribbean nation less than 100 miles from America. But the friends – and the goods – disappeared.
From 1990 to 1999, Cuban food production decreased 40%, the production of eggs and poultry dropped 50%, pork production 20%, and the number of cattle by 30%. Even though wheat, corn, and rice are vital to the Cuban diet, statistics indicate a drop in the availability of all three
commodities in this country during the 1990s. Lack of fuel and energy, machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and feed together with an inefficient
agricultural infrastructure are the primary reasons for Cuba’s unstable food system.
It is ironic that there would be a lack of food in a country with good soil, plenty of land and good growing conditions. It is also ironic given Cuba’s
proximity to the U.S. For example, Cuba imports rice from Vietnam, with a shipping time of about 45-50 days. The shipping time from U.S. Gulf ports takes less than a week.
Sugar remains the island nation’s biggest export commodity, followed by tobacco, fruit, coffee and fish. All over the world, there is still a demand for
Cuban cigars and rum. Cuba also exports some pharmaceuticals and nickel. Some mines are operated in joint ventures with Canadian companies.
In 1961, after the Castro takeover, only about 14% of Cuba’s land was cultivated. In 1997, 34% of Cuba’s area, about 9.25 million acres, was
cultivated. Cuba’s rainfall is somewhere between 40 and 60 inches annually. Rainfall fluctuations can be substantial, with the volume of rainwater varying
from year to year by as much as 30 to 40%. Cuba’s elongated and narrow shape, insular character, and extensive coastline (2,306 miles—No point on
the island is further than 50 miles from the sea) accentuate the cycles of water overabundance and water scarcity. There are regional fluctuations in
precipitation as well, ranging from 120 inches in the mountainous region of northeast Cuba, to below 24 inches in the semi-desert southeastern coastal region.
Elements of Capitalism in Castro’s Cuba
Fidel Castro compromised his ideals in 1994, and a new economy accepting
of the U.S. dollar was legalized. People with relatives in the states were allowed to own dollars, and a tourist industry began to grow. Today
tourism has made the industry the biggest income source in Cuba, with more than two million visitors a year.
It is indeed a great experience to travel in Cuba. In Pinar del Rio you find landscapes similar to Toscana in Italy. You can enjoy clean beaches and
fresh Caribbean waters, and there is much ambiance in Old Havana. UNESCO has started a renovation of Old Havana, now defined as World
Heritage. It holds promise to be a wonderful place, with a feel reminiscent of Old Europe. Havana has a parliament building with two chambers, similar
to a capitol building in an American state. Castro has even turned the parliament into a museum! For a dollar, you can have your picture taken in the Speaker’s office.
If you have dollars, you can go to the dollar shops in all bigger cities and buy imported goods. New earnings from tourism have come at a price: Cuba is
becoming a society of classes – exactly what the communist ideology claims to be against.
A number of Cuban citizens try to supplement their state-sponsored living with a dose of capitalism. Tourism-based tips can be many times a normal
salary, and the dollar-income is not taxed. In the cities it is common to see many elderly people trying to make a dollar by selling site-seeing material to
tourists. In another example, one day my wife and I hired a bike-taxi to take us to our hotel for $2. Our driver was a university-educated doctor who
made $15 dollars a month practicing medicine. In a good day, he can make about the same taxiing tourists. He takes his state ration of food, and
supplements it in the dollar stores as well as in the open, free markets. Without dollars from the capitalist world, many Cubans in their communist
society would be forced to produce vegetables in the back garden, if they have one, or trade goods under the black economy.
The living conditions are unfortunate for a population that otherwise is generally well-educated and healthy. The country’s literacy rate exceeds
95%, with school class sizes that average around a dozen per class, with many students who go on to receive a high school and college education.
Life span is high, averaging 74 years for men and 78 years for women.
It is ironic, that Fidel Castro has made Cuba dollar-dependent, but at the same time blames the USA for his domestic problems. In 1961, when the
Kennedy Administration was humiliated after the Cuban victory in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S. reacted with the embargo, and today Cuba
still is suffering. Castro’s response to American measures against his regime was to nationalize all U.S. property in Cuba without paying for the values.
The U.S. still claims the values, while Cuba wants American payment for economic blockade damages. When and if Cuba and the U.S. re-establish
ties, there will need to be meetings to resolve these decades-long business disputes.
Until then the Castro-propaganda machine is still alive and well. Communist propaganda still thrives, although there are no statues or pictures of Castro,
as Cuban law forbids glorification of living politicians. Cubans I visited with were surprised to learn I was able to get official statistics about their country
in Copenhagen before we left for our tour. They are not able to get much of that information themselves. Cell phones don’t work in Cuba, and very few people are on the Internet.
The Cuban population is told what to think about politics. People with initiative are party-members: It’s the key to opportunity and influence. But
just as in Eastern Europe, more and more people, even party members, will finally say: “Enough is enough.” As a visitor, you get many questions about
Europe, private-owned companies, a free market economy, multi-party government, and freedom of information.
Young people, and 50% of the population is 30 or younger, generally agree in the necessity of the revolution in 1959, but feel that times have changed
and that they will not accept the current situation much longer. As a visitor in Cuba, you are told such opinions clearly in many direct conversations.
What’s in Cuba’s Future?
What will happen when Fidel Castro is gone? It is realistic to think about
new development even without renewed connections with the U.S., although many Cubans deeply want it. They curse the U.S. economic blockade, and
it will take many years to forget it. On the other hand, memories of nuclear Cuba and the world crisis in the 1960s are fading fast.
Cuba’s tourism industry will explode, and this will not necessarily make it more attractive to visit. Today – at least outside Havana, in the Cuban
countryside – you are invited into any family’s home, with a knock at the door. You are offered fresh coconut milk or coffee and good conversation. This might end, with millions of new visitors.
There would also be a new era for Cuban agriculture, bolstered in part perhaps by U.S. investment. With the lack of chemicals in Cuban
agriculture, some speculate there could be an organic farming niche for Cuba. One problem is that 25% or more of the population is living and
working in the rural areas. Many would need new jobs, especially if Cuban agriculture would become more mechanized.
Some in U.S. agriculture are probably using their calculators to estimate the export-possibilities to Cuba in the future. That’s fine. They’d better have fine
quality sugar from Cuba in mind as well. Maybe 10 million tons will be placed in the free world market according to coming World Trade Organization agreements. It will also pose a problem to EU sugar production.
Jørgen Lund Chris-tiansen, an agricultural journalist from Denmark,
traveled to Cuba in 2001 with his wife for a “holiday” (What we refer to as vacations, Europeans refer to as holiday.) Unlike Americans, who are discouraged by the U.S. government from traveling to Cuba,
Europeans and vacationers from other countries regularly travel to Cuba as tourists. Christiansen, however, journeyed off the beaten tourist path in Cuba for a closer look at
Cuban agriculture, in the following report for Prairie Grains.