(click on pictures to enlarge)
One of the things which struck me as we drove through the Cuban countryside was the amount of land lying fallow, 2.5 million arable acres sitting idle, I was told. Given that Cuba imports 70 to 80% of its food, it seemed to me that much of this land could be used for cultivation of crops.
One of the many problems is that much of the land has been taken over by an invasive acacia tree (called El Marabu in Cuba) which was brought to the Caribbean from Africa as an ornamental tree in the 1800s. Quite beautiful as an ornamental tree, the flowers are a valuable source of honey and the seeds are edible. However, one doesn’t see many of these as mature trees. The young plants grow so fast that they densely infest large tracts of land, choking the growth of endemic species and not attaining maturity themselves.
Farmers have to burn down the trees to stop them spreading and then dig the roots out before they can till the soil which makes for difficult farming. The wood burns slowly and more recently, moves are underway to use the wood as a biomass for a power plant. Also for producing charcoal which can be exported. Thus more land would be cleared for farming.
There was a distinct change in the landscape as we drove west through the Pinar del Rio province and the Valle de Vinales, a beautiful valley of fertile, cultivated fields surrounded by karst limestone mountains. Here in the valley, we saw a lot more farms and tilled fields though much of it appeared to be from a previous century with ploughs pulled by oxen and work carried out manually.
One of the largest crops is tobacco, grown by groups of small farmers in co-operatives.
The leaves are picked by hand with the best and largest kept for cigars, the next best for cigarillos and the remainder for cigarettes.
The leaves are hung on poles to dry in thatched barns and cigars are rolled by hand.
The whole process is labour intensive and not well suited to mechanization. Some of our group bought cigars at a farm we visited, at around $4/cigar which is cheap considering the labour that goes into producing them.
We also saw small coffee farms but the yield is low and Cuba now imports coffee from Vietnam. A sad state of affairs since we were told that Vietnam called in Cuban experts to teach them how to grow and produce coffee.
Sugarcane was once a major crop with huge exports of sugar going at first to the US and after the revolution to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, demand for sugar fell and prices dropped to below production costs making the government shut down most refineries. Since the early 2000s, sugar production has dropped considerably and Cuba now imports sugar from Brazil. We saw some small plantations and sugar mills near Trinidad which used to be a sugar-producing area but certainly not the vast fields one would expect from a country that once had a thriving economy based on sugar. Undoubtedly, sugar production could be increased if it was done more efficiently if only to avoid importing it.
Socialism has brought many benefits to Cuba like literacy and better health for the majority of the population. However, between the difficulty of importing machinery due to the US embargo and antiquated State systems, Cuba has not kept up with advancing technology. Some say that the high subsidies once received from the Soviet Union, damaged the Cuban ability to modernize and optimize their economy. The old guard of Fidel Castro’s contemporaries are now all in their 70s and 80s and politically, nobody knows what is going to happen next. There will have to be major changes in how the country operates in order to become more efficient and productive. It will be very interesting to see how the future unfolds in Cuba over the next few years.