By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
"This system is slavery," Bejar says. "[Farmers] work for the state like slaves. They put you in jail if you lose a cow. It's my cow! Is that not an abuse of power? Here you're the boss of nothing. If tourists want to buy something from me, I should be able to sell it for the price I want."
Currently each farm must sell up to 80 percent of its harvest to the state at a fixed price. The remaining 20 percent may be divided between what the family needs and what it can sell at government-controlled farmers' markets, known as mercados agropecuarios. The markets, which had been shut down for nearly a decade, reopened in 1994 as an emergency measure to motivate farmers to make more food available during the shortages after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Like many growers throughout Cuba, members of the independent cooperatives say they want to sell a greater percentage of their harvests at the mercados. (Since 1997 they've been barred from selling at the farmers' markets altogether.)
The farmers complain, too, about the significant disparity between what the government pays farmers and what it later charges its own consumers. A farmer who grows mangoes can expect to get 7 pesos (about 35 cents) per 100 pounds from the state, which then sells the same quantity to consumers for 50 pesos. For milk, a scarce commodity in Cuba, the government pays farmers less than two cents per liter but charges consumers more than a dollar, almost three days' worth of the average monthly salary of less than ten dollars. For a valuable product such as tobacco, the margin widens even further between wholesale and retail prices, especially when the target market is tourists, who number more than a million per year and who in 1997 pumped more than one billion dollars into the island's economy. Tobacco farmers earn about 150 pesos, or $7.50, for the equivalent of a box of 25 Cohibas. Tourists spend around $300 per box for the famous puros.
Forced compliance is another issue. At the beginning of the growing season, an official visits each farm to draw up a contract for the coming harvest. The farmer is told not only what to grow, but how much the state expects. The farmer who doesn't meet his quota faces a fine (barring a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.) If a coffee farmer, for example, must deliver 100 cans of coffee beans at the end of the month but only delivers 80, he is fined the price the government would have paid for each, multiplied by ten pesos.
Central planning, bureaucratic management, and little room for individual initiative, Bejar says, have stalled the agricultural economy. "Some have managed to carve out a little autonomy in the system and produce farm products at subsistence levels while secretly selling whatever they can in an underground economy to survive," he explains. "But this is no way to live, and no way for an economy to produce enough food for its people."
Once Transicion has acquired enough profits, members hope to build new homes and modern irrigation systems, electrify their farms, and purchase tractors and trucks. But that goal is distant at best. The problem, of course, is money. The Cuban constitution doesn't specifically ban the farmers' actions, Bejar and other cooperative members insist, but faced with official opposition and harassment, and only a trickle of cash from Miami, the farmers have made do with what they can buy and sell on the black market. People often walk long distances and climb steep hills to buy their yuca, corn, taro roots, or avocados. But the trips are worthwhile; the farmers' prices undercut the government's, even those at the mercados.
Since he joined the cooperative, Alonso has scraped by, earning a monthly average of about ten dollars, roughly the same as he brought in while working for the state. With the added incentive of cooperatives selling as much as they can produce, he believes they could become profitable and ultimately surpass production of state cooperatives. "Almost 40 years have passed, and we're witnessing the massive level of impoverishment to which our entire nation has fallen," he said while leading a tour of his farm this past year. "We've gone to meeting after meeting, and nothing has come out as a solid accomplishment for farmers. We've been told the same tall tale that draws on history and has no future. Well, we could wait no longer."
The seeds for the current peasant uprising, ironically, were sown by Fidel Castro shortly before he seized power in 1959. Still leading the battle against Batista from his Sierra Maestra mountain hideout, he acted on a promise he'd made five years earlier, during a speech to the judges who condemned him for his bloody attack on Santiago's Moncada army barracks. At the time he denounced Cuba's prerevolutionary agricultural system, which left many peasants undernourished, unemployed, and under constant threat of eviction.
So he signed into law a radical reform granting tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and squatters titles to the land they worked. The decree tripled the number of the island's rural private-property owners, with more than 50 percent of the nation's farmers finally owning their own plots. It also created one of communist Cuba's nagging aberrations.