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Like Chibas, who once mentored Fidel Castro in politics, Rodriguez set out to galvanize grassroots support. But rather than recruiting professionals and intellectuals in Santiago, as he'd tried before, this time he left the city and ventured into the crinkled peaks and emerald valleys of the coastal Sierra Maestra mountains, where Jose Marti had led his uprising against Spain and where Castro armed peasants to overthrow Batista. The impoverished campesinos in the remote hills surrounding Santiago have long been known for asserting their independence. And Rodriguez believed that the region's private farmers -- a small group who owned their land and who had gained much at the outset of the revolution, only to lose almost everything four decades later -- might take a stand with him against the state's rigid controls.
"It's not easy to motivate people to fight," he said in his cramped apartment near Miami International Airport. "Cubans are so drowned in politics, it's the last thing they want to think about. People would prefer to get on a small boat and risk their lives rather than organize against the government.... But this was a cause people could believe in. It's about the right to live and eat."
Eventually he tracked down Antonio Alonso Perez, a former Chibas Party member who'd fled Santiago after the government crackdown. He found the 33-year-old engineer living in squalor with his wife and four boys atop a lush hill in Loma del Gato, an almost inaccessible section of the Sierras crisscrossed by hundreds of acres of state farmland abandoned in the post-Soviet "special period." A poorly thatched roof covered the family's one-room home; the walls were built of branches and caked mud; there was no electricity. They had to walk at least a mile to fetch water from a local stream, and even farther to the nearest village, Songo-La Maya. Their prize possession: an old Soviet-made, battery-powered radio.
Alonso, whose family has owned a 40-acre farm since 1926, was living quietly, growing corn, coffee, and other crops. Extreme destitution and bitterness, however, made him receptive to Rodriguez's plans for an agrarian revolt. The two men fanned out in Loma del Gato to try to persuade Alonso's neighbors to join them. They avoided speaking in political terms. "All we want, we explained, was to let the campesinos know that it isn't wrong to want to sell your merchandise -- the products of your choosing -- for the price you want, to the place you want," Rodriguez recounts. Eventually ten farmers of Loma del Gato agreed to join Alonso and refused to turn over their harvests or otherwise do business with the state. It was a risky stance, as the government is the sole supplier of seeds, fertilizers, and equipment. Their only weapons would be borrowed plowshares and the labor of underfed cattle.
Over the next few months the united peasants, who controlled about 400 acres, began calling for changes in local and state agricultural policies. They rose before local workers' councils to demand growers be allowed to decide what crops to plant. They argued for an end to quotas and price fixing. And they pleaded for the right to be able to sell their crops to whomever they chose.
The following year, in May 1997, the ten families of Loma del Gato took a bolder step. They formed a collective, calling it La Cooperativa Transicion, and began to share equipment, labor, and long-term plans. Transicion called for the right to sell directly to foreign markets, to hire paid labor, and raise and slaughter cattle and other livestock at their discretion. (The unauthorized killing of a cow carries a penalty of up to twenty years in prison. If someone steals a campesino's cow, a common offense in the countryside, the farmer who loses the animal must pay a 500-peso fine.)
Rodriguez and Alonso also took their message beyond Santiago, and in September 1997, campesinos in Bejuquera de Filipinas, in Guantanamo province, banded together to create their own independent cooperative, Progreso I. By then, of course, Rodriguez was in exile in Miami. The next month, Transición and Progreso I united under an umbrella organization, La Alianza Nacional de Agricultores Independientes de Cuba (the National Alliance of Independent Farmers). In February 1998 farmers in San Jose de las Lajas, in Havana province, formed a third group, Progreso II, and joined the alliance. From Florida Rodriguez can do little more than send about a hundred dollars each month to support expenses for items such as seed and fertilizer.
"We want to put the products on the market that are in our interest," says 53-year-old Jorge Bejar Baltazar, president of Transicion, while checking the coffee crop on a portion of the cooperative's 400 acres this past summer. "We want the right price for our work. We should have a say in this. Now the state tells us what we get.... We're working barefoot, poorly dressed, and without food. We want liberty."
Bejar and Alonso, the cooperative's vice president, were not timid about promoting Transicion's goals. They sent letters to party officials; to the president of the National Assembly (the island's congress); and to the president of the National Association of Small Farmers, which regulates private farms like Alonso's. In retaliation they have been summoned for questioning at police headquarters in Songo-La Maya, in the valley below Loma del Gato, and subjected to harassment.