Alia Karim

Research and reflections on Cuban agriculture

Agrarian Reforms in the Cuban Revolution and ‘The Special Period’

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If you aren’t familiar with Cuban agriculture this post may provide you with some useful insight! A summary that I wrote for my directed readings course at Dalhousie university. 

The aim of these readings was to get a sense of the agrarian classes in Cuban prior to and following the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro. This report will highlight Louis Pérez’s account of agrarian reforms during the Cuban Revolution in his 1988 publication, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, as well as other authors who have commented on what has been called a “third agrarian reform”, namely, changes in Cuban agriculture as a result of ‘The Special Period’ in the early 1990’s.

Lowry Nelson’s publication, Rural Cuba, provides good case examples of rural unrest that, in part, led to the Cuban Revolution. Nelson traveled in Cuba in the 1940’s, overseeing how rural Cubans lived. In speaking to Cubans, he explains that Cubans poorly managed farmland and they were largely illiterate (for example, in Cabaiguán, a landowner would not give residents land to build a school to educate local children). Overall the rural population was seen as “very bad”— but these poor living conditions were due to the fact that large concentrations of land were held in the hands of a few. As well, Nelson attributes this to a pattern of political control of Cuban land under Spanish and US rule. Interestingly, Nelson’s last chapter almost forecasts the events of the Cuban Revolution by suggesting that the rural populations needed to initiate agrarian reform and demand positive change in order to relieve the frustration of peasants. In particular, Nelson writes that a land policy was badly needed to provide the broadest practical distribution of the land and ensure it is efficiently used—this was changed during the Revolution.

In reading Louis Pérez’s account of the Cuban Revolution, I was very struck by the participation of the rural peasant class in forwarding the Revolution. Prior to this reading, I thought that Cubans who supported the Revolution were mostly youth in urbanized areas, since my last summary supported that claim and there was little to no mention of uprisings in the rural populations. Pérez writes that even before the 1959 Revolution, there were reforms in countryside; yet this did not lead to long-term welfare for rural populations. The Civic Military Institute undertook vast educational program and military sergeants served as teachers. However, chronic problems of unemployment, underemployment and a flawed agrarian order resulted from gangsterismo and terror that had become hallmark of Auténtico rule. Even though Batista overtook Auténtico rule, by the late 1950’s, protest and unrest among rural agrarian classes had pushed the protest movement as it drew on their social frustration, economic losses and political anger.

Pérez explains the history of conflict between rural ‘squatters’ on one side and the landowners and armed forces on the other, which vastly shaped the opposing sides leading up to the Cuban Revolution. He claims, overall, that the tradition of rural unrest had transformed itself into an ending enmity against the sugar latifundias, the foreigners who owned them, and the Rural Guards who ‘protected’ them. Followers of Fidel sought communities of peasants surviving at precarious levels of subsistence in the Sierra Maestra. They existed in impenetrable mountain ranges of the Oriente in more or less an intermittent state of rebellion. By the end of 1958, Fidel’s guerilla army had recruited 1 000 peasants. These guerilla bands were the beneficiaries of the sympathy and support of peasant communities, which is really important to note because the frustrations of these groups pushed for Revolution. Pérez also notes the differences in the peasant class and those involved in larger-scale mechanized agriculture, through a quote by Che Guevara. He explains that the first territory occupied by Fidel’s rebel army was “inhabited by a class of peasants different in its social and cultural roots from those that inhabit the regions of extensive, semi-mechanized Cuban Agriculture. In fact, the Sierra Maestra, locale of the first revolutionary column, is a place that serves as a refuge to all the peasants who struggle daily against the landlord. The soldiers who made up our first guerilla army of rural people came from that part of this social class which as most aggressive in demonstrating its love for the land and its possession”. I included this quotation because I think it shows that the Cuban Revolution was largely based on this battle for land rights. To me, the uprising was in response to decades of exploitation and domination because foreigners owned the land, and thus owned the means of production. This Revolution was about Cubans being able to reclaim their own land and to have a say on what they do with it. In fact, I have observed in other reports of peasant movements, such as La Vía Campesina, that these social movements have been established due to the struggle to reclaim one’s land.

As well, I think another important aspect of thinking behind the Revolution that Pérez mentions, is the emphasis on conciencia, or, creation of a new revolutionary consciousness that would lead to a new revolutionary ethic. The Cuban revolutions had a goal of establishing a new individual motivated not by expectation of personal gain but by the prospects of collective advancement. This individual was to be highly disciplined, highly motivated, and hard working. I think this is actually a really important part of ‘leftist’ thinking that many people do not realize. Often, the ‘left’ is criticized for seeking revolutions and not having a concrete plan for their society after the downfall of the government they took down. In this sense, revolutions are seen as failures because, oftentimes, the system ultimately returns to pre-revolutionary conditions. Pérez writes that overzealous and overconfident  revolutionaries devised impractical if not impossible goals, caused many of problems in 1960’s-70’s that followed the events of 1959. It appears to me that perhaps some Cubans may have been caught up in the charisma of the revolution and did not carefully plan the political and economic activity to follow the overthrow of the Batista government. It is arguable about whether they have been truly successful since. All in all, I was quite shocked to see Pérez’s note on conciencia and I am really glad that he writes on it in representing the Cuban Revolution.

Pérez and other scholar further explain the agrarian reforms, which actually helped the rural economy following the 1959 events. The First reform in 1959 enabled one person to own 405 ha and the government obtained 44% of the farm and ranch lands. As a result, number of farmers more than tripled, state farms replaced large plantations, and farmers’ incomes steadily improved. The Second reform in 1963 reduced all private land ownership to 67 ha and expanded state farm sector—therefore, no longer could foreign investors dominate the Cuban economy. This was a clear reaction to the rural unrest that sought to end sugar latifundias by foreign investors, thus, to a certain extent, Cubans were able to reclaim their land. At this time, CCSs and CPAs established, part of cooperative federation known as the National Association of Small Producers (ANAP). The ANAP still continues to provide cooperative training, agricultural extension, and array of services to members today.

Pérez, Sinclair, and Thompson note important institutional changes were the promulgation of a new constitution in 1976, which created the National Assembly, and the election of provincial and local government officials across the island. A significant facet of this was the Poder popular (people’s power) that established the mechanism for the popular election of municipal assemblies, which in turn elected the provincial assemblies and choses the deputies that made up the National Assembly. Pérez writes that the Poder popular expanded in the 1970’s as part of a new emphasis on mass participation in order to further the goals of Cuban revolutionaries. I believe that this sociopolitical organization led to the reforms later in the 1990’s due to the ability and willingness of the Cuban government to decentralize power.   

Sinclair and Thompson argue that Cubans implemented a ‘Third agrarian reform’ in the 1990’s. This overall reform consisted of the decentralization of large state farms into smaller farmers’ cooperatives, leasing land in usufruct to thousands of private farmers, urban gardening through thousands of micro farms and reforming distribution through introduction of markets, all in response to ‘The Special Period’.  They argue that recovery of agriculture came from this internal sociopolitical organization—new policies, new actors, and new systems to handle food production and distribution, whilst maintaining socialist ideals.

The reforms resulting from ‘The Special Period’ have upheld ideals from the Revolution, but have also faced significant challenges. These successes and challenges are highlighted in Sinclair and Thompson’s piece. They explain that farmers have been supported politically, economically and socially, which has continued since the Revolution. In fact, they also claim that there is stronger support for rural communities as thousands of families have left cities and town to claim a stake and make their livelihood from the farmland. As well, the Cuban education and health standards were maintained during this time, and government provided free agricultural extension, crop insurance, guaranteed markets, and some subsidies on inputs; thus, the government has maintained social welfare and outreach. Still, the current agricultural reforms face significant challenges, particularly in motivating people to work. For example, the UBPCs (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production) established by Fidel have shown difficulty retaining their work force due to inadequate living conditions and the desire for more autonomy from state in decision-making.

Since the‘ Third agrarian reform’, Cubans have been experiencing a gap between those who have access to dollars or higher salaries and those who do not is growing and poses the most serious equity problem to the Cuban state and society. This is in part due to farmers who are able to triple and quadruple their incomes by selling surpluses to agricultural markets. Boillat et al. point out that the agricultural sector is still one of Cuba’s greatest challenges: the country is not self-sufficient and still has to import more than $1.5 billion (USD) per year of food. Their paper suggests that the Cuban agricultural should adopt more Credit and Service Cooperative (CCS) models as share some characteristics of ‘‘market socialism’’, in which there is market competition, including wage labour, but autonomy and local decision power is maintained, and it supports sustainable agriculture. Still, I am wondering to what extent the focus on CCS models will ensure that there is equity among Cubans due to these differences in income.

The strengths and weaknesses of Cuban agricultural history that I’ve described show nevertheless that alternatives do exist. The authors argue that people are not bound to repeat the same errors of centrally planned productivism, capital concentration, and work alienation that initially led to the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In particular, Boillat et al. suggest that Cuban models of self-managed socialism have the kind of realistic economic democracy that is best suited for long-term sustainable management of natural resources. Similarly, Sinclair and Thompson argue that while Cuba still struggles to achieve economic growth while maintaining social equity, their reforms have not come at “the cost of wealth for a few and misery for the majority”, unlike many developed countries.

Works Cited

Boillat, S., Gerber, J., Funes-Monzote, F. (2012). What economic democracy for degrowth? Some comments on the contribution of socialist models and Cuban agroecology. Futures, 44, 600-607.

Nelson, L. (1970). Rural Cuba. New York: Octagon Books.

Pérez, L. (1988). Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press. 276-381.

Sinclair, M., and Thompson, M. (2008). Going against the grain: Agricultural crisis and transformation. A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 156-167.


Author: aliakarim2013

Master of Environmental Studies candidate at Dalhousie University ('14).

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