Cuba's Second Revolution

Before he was banished from his homeland, Diosmel Rodriguez sowed the seeds of revolt among Cuban farmers

Since then the government has whittled away the peasants' holdings. In 1963 Castro announced a second agrarian reform, which limited private farms to 165 acres. Those that exceeded the limit were simply expropriated and eventually incorporated into Soviet-inspired massive state farms. He introduced restrictions on farm operations as well. Farm owners could only sell their land to the government; they could not decide what crops to plant, nor could they buy seeds, fertilizers, or tools from anyone but the state. They had to sell the major portion of their harvests to the state at fixed prices. Later regulations included fines for not honoring government contracts, limits on the amount buyers could purchase, sales taxes, and an annual tax on gross income.

As Soviet influence neared its peak in the mid-Seventies, the state pressured all private farmers to sell their land to state farms, which by then accounted for more than 80 percent of Cuba's arable land. (The Alonso family remains among the approximately four percent of the island's farmers who have refused the state's repeated prodding and are still private landowners.) But after food-production shortages and a worsening general economy that culminated in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the Castro regime reversed its policy. The few remaining independent farmers were encouraged not to sell their land to the state after all, but to combine their assets by pooling their farms' resources and forming government-run cooperatives. In exchange they were promised modern housing, schools and health facilities, low-interest loans, and priority access to machines and construction materials.

Today there are three types of government-sanctioned farms that make up the island's agricultural sector. The state farms, once predominant, are run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Now, however, the state farm system comprises less than 30 percent of Cuba's arable land. Years of overworking the land and the allure of city life have left tracts of land, like those near Alonso's farm, lying fallow.

The second, and most prevalent agricultural organizations are the government-run cooperatives. There are two basic kinds: those whose members lease the land they farm, and those whose members own their land. Together they control approximately 51 percent of the island's arable land.

Unlike Diosmel Rodriguez's independent cooperatives, the state-run cooperatives sell most of their production to the government, harvest what they are told to plant, and remain part of a looser, but still centrally planned, economy.

The third allowable agricultural sector includes the private farms, which account for about fifteen percent of the land. But most of those belong to Credit and Service Cooperatives, formed in 1961 for those who wanted to take advantage of government resources but didn't want to give up their land to the state farms. The remaining landowners, like Alonso, have had little association with the state other than production contracts and the myriad rules and regulations.

Despite the incentives and promises offered by the government in the early Eighties, the independent farmers refused to relinquish control of their land. And according to a University of Havana study from 1990, they complained about the cooperatives' low profitability and insufficient autonomy. Besides, the creation of the mercados agropecuarios in 1981 -- which for the first time since the revolution allowed supply and demand to determine profits, and where they could earn extra income -- added to their resolve. But five years later the government closed the mercados in a further effort to coerce farmers into joining the state cooperatives.

"The day is not too far off ... when we can say that 100 percent of [private] farmers are in cooperatives," said Castro in a 1988 speech. "We are waging a battle against them."

Food shortages that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's primary benefactor, would bring back the mercados agropecuarios in 1994. But there were differences. Cooperative members could sell surplus produce, but now they needed state certificates proving they had met their established quotas, and a fifteen percent tax was added to their market sales. Although the government has admitted the failure of central planning by replacing the state farms with government cooperatives and bringing back the mercados, the independent farmers believe the reforms were too little too late.

A week after Transicion declared it would no longer sell its harvest to the government in a letter sent to Cuba's National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, in May 1997, each family was fined 500 pesos (nearly three months' salary) for "improperly using the land," Alonso says. Bejar was fined an additional 350 pesos for having the improper ratio of male-to-female cattle. Then officials banned the operator of the village's lone tractor from entering Transicion farms. And word began to spread, as often happens when dissidents become too vocal in Cuba, that the cooperative members were "enemies of the state," "agents of foreign influence," even "terrorists."

"They're doing something they shouldn't," said Hieronide Plana this past summer. The 73-year-old lives with his wife in a tiny house without a roof a few miles from Alonso, where he still works as a private farmer and operates within the system, selling his produce to the state. "The people are obliged to cooperate with the state to work for the benefit of everybody," he added. "Before the revolution there was no security. Now everyone has something to live on.... I have a doctor, a pension, and two educated daughters who are high school teachers. That wouldn't have been true before the revolution. People have to work together, not for themselves. What they're doing threatens our system."

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