'food security in cuba'

From: michael a. lebowitz (mlebowit@SFU.CA)
Date: Sat Jan 10 2004 - 21:19:16 EST

Message: 10
    Date: Sat, 10 Jan 2004 08:48:37 -0500
    From: "Walter Lippmann" <walterlx@earthlink.net>
Subject: Food Security in Cuba (Monthly Review)

(Monthly Review has been providing excellent
reports and analyses on Cuba going back as
far as Huberman and Sweezy's wonderful book
and later SOCIALISM IN CUBA.
MONTHLY REVIEW, which is celebrating its
50th anniverary this month, and which has
published a number of major works on Cuba:
http://www.monthlyreview.org/nfte0502.htm )

Food Security in Cuba
by Sinan Koont
Monthly Review
January 2004

Sinan Koont teaches economics and is coordinator of Latin
American Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle,
Pennsylvania. He thanks numerous friends and colleagues in
the United States and Cuba for their helpful comments on
previous drafts of this article.

For reference notes to this article contact Claude
Misukiewicz at the Monthly Review office.

In 1996, Via Campesina, the recently formed international
umbrella organization of grassroots peasant groups,
introduced the term "food sovereignty": the right of
peoples and states to democratically decide their own food
and agricultural policies and to produce needed foods in
their own territories in a manner reinforcing the cultural
values of the people while protecting the environment.

A related but distinct concept of "food security" has been
defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) to include, among other aspects: (1) the
production of adequate food supplies; (2) stability in the
flow of these supplies; and (3) secure access, both
physical and economic, to available supplies for those in
need of them. Recently, Cuba, unlike most other countries
in the world, has had to grapple with these questions under
circumstances that would try most people's souls.

In the Caribbean, neither the history of colonial
domination, including slavery and monoculture agriculture
based on export crops, nor the climate, tropical and
unsuitable for feed-grain production, allow for the easy
satisfaction of food needs with local production. This has
been made more difficult by the post-1990 disintegration of
the Soviet Union, which resulted in the collapse of Cuban
exports and imports and the loss of the preferential terms
of trade of Cuban sugar for Soviet oil. In addition, during
this time there has been a tighter U.S. blockade and
increasing U.S. hostility. This is the "periodo especial"
(special period) announced by Fidel Castro in 1990. By
1993, as Cuban production and imports plummeted, the daily
intake of the average Cuban citizen had descended to 1863
kilocalories, including 46 grams of protein and 26 grams of
fat, all figures well below FAO recommended minimums for a
healthy diet.

It was obvious that something had to be done, and a rapid
increase in imports of foodstuffs or inputs to food
production was out of the question. The bywords for food
security, by necessity, had to be self-reliance and, to the
extent possible, self-sufficiency: a tall order for any
Caribbean economy, and doubly so for an economy under a
hostile blockade by a powerful neighbor.

Cuba had to make full, efficient use of all available
resources related to agriculture to (1) produce food
directly using domestic inputs, (2) earn foreign exchange
by exporting food and other cash crops (such as tobacco,
sugar, and coffee), and/or (3) produce previously imported
inputs into food production (such as petroleum) to allow
the importation of indispensable necessities such as
powdered milk, thus assuring the availability of food
supplies and the stability of their flow.

A number of approaches have been used to put these overall
strategies into practice over the last decade. The first
was to identify and put idle lands to use, sometimes in
ingenious ways. The second was to develop new schemes of
work organization, pricing mechanisms, and incentives to
stimulate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the
supply (and efficient use) of agricultural labor. The third
approach involved researching, introducing, and
disseminating new methods of work and technologies,
including finding ways to minimize the need for hard
currency expenditures on such things as petroleum and
protein-rich animal feed. Since such dollar expenditures
cannot be totally eliminated they also increased efforts to
penetrate dollar markets with agricultural goods (food and
non-food) so that these dollars-or at least those that end
up in government hands-can be used, in part, to support
food production and to import goods still needed for food
production or for the direct needs of the population.

Creating "New Land"

Eighty percent of Cuba's population is urban. The Cuban
government, acting through its Ministry of Agriculture, the
Department of Urban Agriculture (created in 1994), and the
National Urban Agriculture Group established soon
thereafter, started promoting the approach of creating "new
land" for cultivation as a way of finding local solutions
to the food problem in Havana and elsewhere.

For this purpose it created three kinds of "new" land. The
first of these, termed organoponicos, were gardens
consisting of raised-bed containers filled with compost and
manure-rich soil (often transported from elsewhere)
constructed on lots that had been paved over, compacted, or
were otherwise infertile.

The second form of land creation was to bring existing
fertile land currently lying fallow, in vacant lots and
parks or belonging to enterprises/collectives, into food
production. Such land is usually already in state hands, in
which case it is put to use by granjas (farms) and empresas
estatales (state enterprises) to produce for the market or
to fulfill ration and other commitments by the state, or as
gardens for autoconsumo, that is, to meet the needs of the
workforces associated with various state enterprises such
as factories, farms, sugar cane complexes, schools, and

The third form of new land included cultivating the patios
and yards next to people's houses.

Another innovation has been the huerto intensivo (intensive
garden), which employs intensive gardening methods to
maximize yield in small areas. Vegetables are planted close
together on raised beds enriched with organic matter to
provide adequate nutrition for the plants, but without
retaining walls.

These initiatives are typically run by the state,
collectives or cooperatives. However, local governments
also assign rights to land to private individuals in the
form of parcelas, so-called popular gardens, for as long as
they are kept in production. Even privately-owned land can
be assigned to would-be gardeners or farmers, unless the
owner brings the land to a productive state within six

Finally, there has been a proliferation of backyard
gardening, the so-called patios, propelled by campaigns led
by a mass-based neighborhood civic organization, the
Committee for the Defense the Revolution (CDR), and
reminiscent of the victory gardens movement in the United
States during the Second World War. By the summer of 2003,
the number of patios in production had exceeded 300,000,
with a goal for the future of over half a million patios,
primarily aimed at increases in fruit production.

By the end of 2002, the goal of providing every settlement
of over fifteen houses with its own food production
capacity-whether organiponicos, group gardens, or
individual plots-had essentially been met, and over 18,000
hectares were being cultivated in urban agriculture in and
around cities.

The full-use goal has also been pursued outside of the
urban setting with land left fallow or underutilized being
given away to people willing to work. Export crops like
coffee, cacao, and tobacco and food crops such as rice are
being grown under such plans on hundreds of thousands of

There was also one more, unusual manner, in which "new
lands" became available for food crops in 2002-a government
decision to close down about half of the sugar mills, and
convert the land (about 1 million hectares) to food
production and reforestation. About 246,000 hectares
(including about 100,000 in 2003) will be devoted to annual
crops aside from rice, representing a 73 percent increase
of the area devoted to these crops.

Using Labor More Efficiently

The reorganization of the work process and the provision of
proper incentives to workers have been the primary avenues
to enhance the efficiency of labor. In 1998, agricultural
as well as other enterprises began to take part in a new
type of management process-the Sistema de Perfeccionamiento
Empresarial (loosely translated as the System of Advanced
Management). Under this system, enterprises start by
keeping improved records. They then go through a diagnostic
process of identifying current deficiencies and the
potential for their resolution. Finally, they propose plans
in the areas of labor and wage policy, management
structures, and their choice of economic and efficiency
indicators to be used to evaluate their progress.

There is a concerted effort to establish fair socialist
norms of distribution in the area of cooperative or
collective production in agriculture, where over one
million Cubans work. The principle involved is stated as
"pago por los resultades finales," pay according to the
final results-the more you produce, the more you get paid.
In the agricultural sector the main thrust has been in the
creation of organizational forms that make this approach
possible. This was the primary reason for the 1993 program
of "linking people to the land," breaking up state farms
into smaller cooperative farms.

The breakup of state farms has made individuals or small
work teams completely responsible for production on a given
piece of land, thus making it feasible to tie their incomes
to the amount actually produced on that area. Small farms
worked by small groups of workers (mostly family based)
have been established within agricultural enterprises still
run by the state. These farms are directly subordinate to
the director of the larger enterprise, and workers are paid
according to the results they achieve.

Having organized work around individual or small group
responsibility, the question of providing appropriate
material incentives, of course, still remains. Pay for
results, certainly, but exactly how much? Prices paid for
agricultural products still constitute the primary material
incentive. Beginning in 1994, the prices of food sold to
the population, outside of the ration-book channel, were
liberalized with the establishment of markets where all
suppliers-private farms, cooperatives, and state
farms-could sell their produce at whatever price the market
would bear under the given supply and demand conditions.
Prices paid for deliveries to the state have been increased
for selected products, such as milk, beans, coffee, and
tobacco. Tax policy is also being used to stimulate food
production and urban marketing, including tax exemptions
for small farmers and preferential taxation in the farmers'
markets of the city of Havana at 5 percent of sales,
compared with 15 percent in the rest of the country.

Given the dual dollar-peso Cuban economy, some workers are
paid part of their salary in dollars or given access to
goods, like bicycles, work clothes, and shoes, and various
other goods that are otherwise only available in
dollar-only stores. In-kind incentives, such as better
housing and use of rest and recreation facilities, are also
used to stimulate production.

New Technologies Replace Imports

One of the serendipitous results of the Cuban crisis has
been the forced change from conventional farming practices
to organic farming. Cut off from favorable trade agreements
with the Soviet Union and its allies a decade ago, and
unable to afford buying on the international market, Cuba
has become a gigantic laboratory for farming without
petroleum and petroleum derivatives. From pest control to
fertilization to soil preparation, chemistry is out and
biology is in. The Crop Protection Institute operates over
220 centers that provide cheap and plentiful beneficial
insects and microorganisms that attack plant pests. At
hundreds of vermicompost centers, worms are digging through
and then excreting organic waste to produce, in 2003, one
million tons of natural compost per year-just one of the
new ways in which farmers are trying to improve poor
quality urban and rural soil. There are very rapid
increases in the production of various types of organic
compost, the quantity of such materials jumping seven fold
from 2001 to 2002, reaching fifteen million tons in 2003.
The Ministry of Agriculture has supported this process with
a network of extension agents and supply stores. By 1997,
in Havana alone, there were sixty-seven extension agents
and twelve so-called seed houses. Currently in Havana, this
effort is centered in the tiendas consultario agricola
(TCAs), agricultural consulting stores. The number of TCAs
is projected to rise to fifty, employing five hundred
professional extension agents and technicians. The TCAs
offer technical advice along with seeds, soil improvers,
biological products, and technical literature. The
extension agent plays the key role as disseminator of
information about services offered by the TCA and
communicator of scientific-technical advice and information
to the urban agriculturalists. Across Cuba, urban
agriculture employs the services of close to ten thousand
professionals and over forty thousand technicians. Progress
is also being made in the main agricultural production
regions in rural areas.

Especially significant increases in production are being
achieved for potatoes and rice. A very encouraging
technological development is the introduction of a new
approach to growing rice. This is called the System of Rice
Intensification (SRI) and is promoted world-wide by, among
others, the Cornell International Institute for Food,
Agriculture and Development. While its application is in
its very beginning stages, where tried, this system has
doubled or even tripled rice yields in Cuba, as elsewhere
in the third world, while reducing seed, water, and
petroleum requirements. Optimistic rice experts are
claiming that Cuba is potentially on its way to
self-sufficiency in rice, and, in the future, will be able
to use its excess rice production as animal feed! Potato
production is another success story-although not an example
of organic agriculture. Cuba still tries to maintain the
supply of synthetic fertilizer needed for potato
cultivation. The yields achieved have been impressive for a
tropical island: in 1999, 23 tons/hectare, which in Latin
America is second only to Argentina's 25-27 tons/hectare,
and exceeds the European average if one includes Russia.
For comparison, Canada's yield is 27-28 tons/hectare. Newly
introduced technologies, such as new irrigation techniques
(89 percent of the potato crop is irrigated), and new crop
varieties have helped Cuba greatly improve potato

The general turn to organic agriculture and the renewed use
of animal traction power (2,400 teams of oxen labor in the
City of Havana) has produced the tremendous savings of
imported energy and other products derived from petroleum.
In 2003, the Ministry of Agriculture is using less than 50
percent of the diesel fuel it used in 1989, less than 10
percent of the chemical fertilizers, and less than 7
percent of the synthetic insecticides. In fact, all aspects
of food production are daily battlegrounds in the fight to
save energy!

Penetrating Markets that Pay in U.S. Dollars

There are at least three mechanisms through which non-sugar
agricultural production can contribute to the dollar
earnings needed to achieve food security in Cuba-and in the
Cuban discourse it is always stressed that these dollars
are needed to meet the food requirements of the population.

First, there are the stores that sell to tourists, as well
as to Cubans, for dollars. Cubans have been able to hold
and circulate dollars legally since 1993. Cubans can obtain
dollars either through remittances from relatives living
abroad (primarily in the United States) or by earning
dollars in Cuba (as tips from tourism, among other
options). These stores are called tiendas de recaudacion de
divisa (TRDs), loosely translated as foreign exchange
capturing stores.

Food and other agricultural product sales in the TRDs
surpass $200 million per year. No stone is being left
unturned in trying to capture sales-in the first ten months
of 2000, $22,000 came through the efforts of the beekeepers
of Ciego de Avila from their sales of honey and its
derivatives, including cosmetics, in the dollar-based
stores and at shops in tourist hotels.

Second, there is the provision of inputs to the tourism
sector. One of the problems of Cuba's burgeoning tourism
industry (about 1.7 million tourists in 2002) has been
retaining the dollars that come in with the tourists. At
the beginning of the tourism push in the early 1990s, most
inputs into tourism, including food, were imported. There
is in principle no reason why the ornamental flowers,
lettuce, and mangoes served in Cuban hotels could not be
grown in Cuba. The Ministry of Agriculture has had some
success in its efforts to increase the quality and
reliability of food delivery to tourist hotels, but the
results remain well below potential. By 2001 only about 61
percent of all inputs into the tourism industry were of
Cuban origin.

The last way for the state to earn dollars through sale of
agricultural products is through exports. In addition to
traditional export sectors like tobacco, coffee, and by
now, citrus fruits, others such as apiculture and the
shellfish industry have begun making contributions. Lest it
seem a little odd for a country under nutritional stress to
export foodstuffs in the quest for food security, it makes
good sense to export high price foods like honey and
shellfish to increase the availability of other foods. In
fact, in 2001 the food imports and exports of Cuba were
almost exactly balanced in value terms.

Access to Food

In the previous section, we surveyed Cuba's efforts-through
production and importation-to assure the availability and
stability of food supplies in sufficient quantities to feed
its people. Now, we turn to a discussion of how Cuba tries
to achieve the equally, if not more, important goal of
securing access to the available food supplies. It is, of
course, not enough for a country to produce enough food per
person, on average. Each person, individually, must receive
enough food. The failure to have adequate and fair food
distribution has resulted in many examples of malnutrition
or even famine in societies that produce sufficient amounts
of foodstuffs per capita. Cuba tries to keep food within
the physical and economic reach of its population in a
number of different ways. One of the most important is the
existence of various entitlements to food. The Cuban
Revolution, since its inception, has used rationing as a
means to bring social equity into its system of food
distribution. In 1998, rationing guaranteed 5 lbs. of rice,
1 lb. of beans, and 3 lbs. of sugar per person per month.
Chicken, eggs, fish, ham, and soy meal as well as potatoes,
tomatoes, and vegetables were, even if irregularly,
available in small quantities at a nominal cost. It should
also be noted here, that every month, out of its
agricultural production, the state delivers 28 lbs. of food
per bed to hospitals, 13 lbs. per child to child care
centers, and 10 lbs. per student to schools.

There are also voluntary redistributions of food,
especially of the produce obtained in the popular gardens
or parcelas. Some of this happens spontaneously, as
productive urban farmers share their bounty with needy
neighbors (especially the elderly) out of social
solidarity. Some local governments more or less insist on
"voluntary" contributions to local schools and hospitals,
as a kind of social rent they feel justified in charging,
because the use of land was given at no charge.

In order to help keep food prices within the reach of the
population, the government has taken carefully designed
actions. Although the opening and spread of farmers'
markets after 1994 provided incentives for producers and
tremendously increased the variety of produce for sale, the
prices in these markets are high enough to preclude the
participation of many if not most Cubans.

A partial solution to the problem of high prices in
farmers' markets has been the establishment of state-based
competitors. In 1998, the Ministry of Agriculture began a
network of markets, supplied with production from state
enterprises. Prices at these placitas topadas (limited
price) markets are kept below those in the farmers' markets
although the variety of products is more limited.

The government has pursued policies that make dollars,
which earlier had been restricted to families receiving
remittances from abroad and to workers in tourism who
receive tips in dollars, available to more Cubans. As an
incentive to some workers in sectors that do not regularly
earn dollars directly, the government pays part of their
salary directly in dollars. Offices have been established
throughout Havana so that pesos can be changed into dollars
(and vice versa) at a fairly stable "market" rate,
currently twenty-six pesos to the dollar. As a result, the
proportion of the population having some access to the
dollar, and thus able to buy consumer goods (including
food), which are not available in the peso markets, rose
from 44 percent in 1996 to 62 percent in 1999. Finally,
access to food has been facilitated by the opportunity for
cost-free access to the major means of production for food,
namely, land. This principle has enabled work collectives,
from state farms and industrial enterprises to schools and
hospitals, to put nearby idle land to good use by raising
crops and animals for the consumption of the workers in
work-place cafeterias. It has also enabled individuals who
are not officially integrated into the agricultural
workforce on state farms, such as retirees, to ask for
small parcels of land to produce their own food.

What is the Outcome?

What kind of fruit have all of these efforts and policies
borne in Cuba? Perhaps the one unquestionable success is to
be found in the production of vegetables and starchy tubers
and plantains-by 2000 the country surpassed the pre-crisis
levels of 1989.

The brightest achievements in this area no doubt belong to
the essentially crisis-created effort in urban agriculture,
which, starting early in the crisis in Havana and bursting
dynamically onto the national scene in recent years, has
proved to be an outstanding contributor to food production,
as well as a valuable source of employment and income for
the urban population. In 2003, over 200,000 workers were
employed in this sector, 35,000 new jobs having been
created over the previous year amounting to 22 percent of
all new jobs in the Cuban economy.

In general, there are very encouraging signs of increased
production and efficiency. In 1999, there were gains in
yields for sixteen of eighteen major crops, including not
only vegetables, tubers, and plantains, but also corn,
beans, rice, fruits, and coffee. Potato, cabbage, malanga,
bean, and pepper yields are superior to those of Central
America and above the average yields in the world. All of
the provinces in Cuba increased their productions of
vegetables, tubers, and plantains, and thirteen broke
historical production records. Production figures for
vegetables speak for themselves (in millions of tons):
1997, 0.1; 1999, 0.9; 2000, 1.7; and 2002, over 3. The
results for 2003 are expected to exceed this achievement,
1.7 million tons having been harvested in the first six
months of the year.

As a result, by mid-2000, vegetable and fresh herb sales
nationwide had reached a level of 469 grams per day per
capita, well above the FAO recommended amount of 300 grams
per day. Cienfuegos and Ciego de Avila lead the nation with
867 and 756 grams per day respectively, while Havana
reached 622 grams per day by November 2000, and Sancti
Spiritus, Granma, Pinar del Rio, Las Tunas, and Guantanamo
were all above 500 grams per day. By March 2003, Havana
Province was producing 943 grams per day per capita.

Of course, major problem areas remain, especially regarding
milk, meat, and eggs, which continue to require imported
animal feed that Cuba cannot afford. Rice, usually grown on
large state farms, has also consistently fallen short of
planned levels of production.

Even in these areas, there is some recovery and hope for
the future. In the case of rice, for example, besides the
expectations surrounding the SRI technology mentioned
above, there are promising beginnings in the "popular rice"
movement, inspired by the successes in urban agriculture
and attempting to duplicate its results in rice
cultivation. In 2003, 300,000 tons of rice will be produced
in the country, up from 172,000 tons in 1999, reducing rice
imports by more than 50 percent.

In the midst of all these transformations, it is important
to note, that, in contrast to the shrinking role of the
state in many third world countries in the current
neoliberal era, in Cuba, the state and other collective
forms of economic organization continue to play a major
role, both in production and in facilitation and support.
The most important bottom line is that, by the end of 2000,
food availability in Cuba reached daily per capita figures
of 2,600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein. The
UN's Food and Agriculture Organization considers 2,400
calories per day and 72 grams protein per day to be an
adequate diet. Despite the remaining problem areas, the
acute food shortage crisis is essentially over. Cuban
society has successfully made, while under considerable
duress, heroic efforts to construct its own version of food
security for its population, and has perhaps shown the way
for other societies. On March 31, 2003, President Hugo
Chavez of Venezuela, in the presence of the Cuban
ambassador and the FAO representative in Venezuela,
inaugurated the first Venezuelan organoponico in the center
of Caracas. Other third world countries would do well to
learn from the Cuban experience-most countries can produce
sufficient food and ensure an adequate diet for all their

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office Fax:   (604) 291-5944
Home:   Phone (604) 689-9510

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun Jan 11 2004 - 00:00:00 EST