Cuba Day Five: Paradise, and the question of owning land

The fate of Day Four: If you have been following my trip to Cuba, you may be wondering what happened to Day Four. I spent it at hotel Rancho San Vicente in beautiful Viñales, in bed nursing a terrible cold! But during one of my few forays out of my room, I did manage to confirm a point made by our excellent guide Jesús as we drove west into the mountains of the province of Pinar del Río. Although the land-line telephone system extends throughout the province, the electric grid does not; much of the province is powered by solar panels. Here’s the array that keeps the lights on at our hotel. (Now back to bed.)

So!—Day Five.

Today we visted El Paraíso (“paradise” in English), a family farm terraced along a hillside overlooking a valley checkered with pastures and more farms. Here Wilfredo, the head of the family, welcomes us, translated by our trusty Jesús.  (I didn’t get Wilfredo’s last name, unfortunately.) You may remember that a few days ago we visited Alamar UBPC (“basic unit of cooperative production,” a farm on state-owned land run by a cooperative of workers). El Paraíso on the other hand is a privately owned family farm, organized with others like it in a private “credit and service cooperative” (the acronym in Spanish is CCS). CCS farms have grown to represent about 17% of all Cuban farms. El Paraíso is also a Finca Agroecologica education center and demonstration farm.

The terraces stepping down the hillside, bordered and contained by hand-stacked stones, are silent testimony to the time and labor that it takes to draw these orderly ranks of crops out of the land. Here we see a row of habichuelas, a long flat green bean; the interplanting in this field includes scallions, squash, and several other vegetables, as well as bright flowers (to attract pests away from the crops). Drip irrigation keeps the crops healthy with as little water as possible (no mean feat in this very hot climate).

The son-in-law of the family, Tony, took a moment on our tour to show us some of the older tools still in use on the farm. The sugar-cane shredder, constructed from bits and pieces from a tractor and a couple of other sources, reduces the knife-edged sugar-cane leaves to pulp and channels off the juice. The coffee-bean husker (a ubiquitous tool in Cuba, it turns out) breaks up the outer husk to release the coffee bean. (At one point Jesús—a formidable dancer—showed us a dance move based on the action of pounding the coffee beans with the pestle of the husker. Where was my camera!) And Tony showed us how to operate the hand-mill, used to grind corn and other grains. These tools, like the terrace rockeries and the thatched roofs of the cabanas and outbuildings, show me once again how the Cubans manage to create both grace and utility out of just the materials they have on hand.

After a delicious lunch on the farm, we headed off to the headquarters of the Moncada UBPC, where we talked to Rafael Barrios, the head of production for the farm. It was pouring rain once again!—Here we see some members of the cooperative, using probably the most efficient modes of transportation for the weather.

Unlike the Alamar UBPC that we visited earlier, with its diverse crops of vegetables and herbs, the main crops for external trade here at Moncada are the traditional ones of tobacco and coffee. Of its 204 hectares, 42 are devoted to coffee and 42 to tobacco; 64 hectares are devoted to “self-consumption”—essentially, gardens for the families of the 86 associates who make up the coop membership—and the rest is left in uncultivated woodlands, where they raise animals. In addition to selling under contract to the government, they can sell some of their products to people outside the coop, and sometimes family members supplement the family income with jobs in the town.

Sr. Barrios helped us understand better what it was like for the farm workers to go from employee to coop member. Like Alamar, the Moncada UBPC began in 1993 with the breakup of a large state-owned farm, and the workers on that farm became the associates of the UBPC. Moncada also holds its lands in usufruct (essentially, a long lease) from the state. The biggest challenge in the transition, he said, was that before, the government answered for everything, but afterwards the workers had to organize themselves and manage their own operation. With the right to own, if not the land itself, the means of production as well as the fruits of their labors, Sr. Barrios said, the workers now feel like true owners. As part of their annually negotiated contract with the government, the coop buys a “technological package” that includes everything (down to machetes!) needed to develop the crops, and crop insurance as well. Over the course of the year they keep track of costs and production levels, and after the harvest, more productive members get a larger share of the sales proceeds.  The farm has done well and is always growing.

I admire the energy and intelligence of everybody we’ve met at the UBPCs—but the Texan in me balks. Am I hearing whispers from one of my stubborn peasant forebears? Do I have a primal fear of being turfed out of my hut by some inscrutable landlord?—I would want to own my land. Thus I was glad to discover that the Cuban system, among its several models, has a place for private family-owned farms like El Paraíso.

On our way back to the hotel at the end of the day, we stopped briefly in Viñales, where I caught this classic car parked in s street-scape of lovely rain-washed colors!