From a Certain Point of View

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

I intentionally left something out yesterday because I had to think about it and today’s tour gave me perspective.

Before dinner last night, our tour guide, Wendy Holm, lectured us on the structure of agricultural co-ops here in Cuba. Recent reforms from Raul Castro allowed land to once again be divvied up to farmers, most of whom banded together in co-operative arrangements. There are still the traditional state farms, but now there’s about five different types of arrangements where private landowners can work together. Roughly 90% of all farm profits still go to the government, regardless of the type of co-op, but the government also provides all of the inputs as well.

The lecture ended with a Q&A, where things got a little heated. We’re traveling with several different sugarcane farmers and they didn’t appreciate being told sugar was the “most protected crop in America.” Further, the idea that co-ops were the best possible arrangement for farmers didn’t land with the group, either.

“What’s wrong with capitalism?” Ronnie Gonsoulin, a sugarcane farmer, asked.

“What’ wrong with socialism?” Holm shot back.

In the end, they all agreed there were shortfalls with every system, but Holm insisted that all farmers were happy with the government arrangements. Further, the statistics presented to us were very difficult to obtain as “the government is more interested in getting things done than keeping track of everything.”

The first stop on today’s tour proved illuminating in this regard. We visited the Ruta del Tobaco Finca Montesinos, a tobacco farm where we got a 30-minute tour of his facilities. Tobacco likes cooler nights and dryer conditions, so it’s not planted until November. The fields here had cover crops of corn and a variety of soybeans that were as big as a grape. Chickens abounded like pretty much everywhere we’d been, and the indications we got were that the grains were mostly for them.  

The tobacco farm is a third-generation co-op, but it seemed pretty clear one of those guys was in charge, leading the tour himself. He proudly told us that while we relied on technology, but he did everything by hand.

On the way to the drying house, we passed a tractor.  

We did get to see the drying house with a few bunches of neatly-stacked rows. The real fun was watching them roll the cigars in a nearby building, which are then left to dry for seven days. He asked for a volunteer and Randy Bracy, owner of Bracy’s nursery in Tangipahoa Parish, bravely (read: eagerly) stepped up to try one.

“It’s good,” he said with a puff.

That’s when the cigar sales began.

Here’s where that 10 percent of their private sales reside, but something was not quite right. The hard-eyed men took the Cuban currency, Canadian, even American dollars for their product, no questions asked. Further, our group alone spent close to $1,000 U.S. and while we were there for that short half-hour, two more tour groups rolled up. The group asked the guy in charge how he fared on that 10 percent.

“Yo vivo,” he said without elaboration. “I live.”

‘More power to him,’ was the consensus of the tour group. No one was bothered by the fact that this guy was making money hand-over-fist, but what was going on there clearly wasn’t pure socialism. It could be clearly seen driving around Vinales as I mentioned yesterday, with every other home being either under construction to add space or for rent already. With rooms going for 30 CUC per night, it was difficult to see why any Cuban would want to even live in town, when rooms held such a premium. It would make more sense to get a house outside of the tourist area or even live under a tree if need be, in order to make in on night what most Cubans make in a month. I doubt very seriously that I am the first person to think that way. In the towns and in the rural farms, capitalism has invaded here in a way it never did during the Bay of Pigs.  

After lunch was a more sedate and orderly co-op, built after the revolution. El Moncada was built after the Cuban Revolution as a coffee production cooperative. They also grew some tobacco, but here there were no tour buses waiting. Instead, old tractors and manual labor dominated. A nearby park in memory to a Revolutionary battle, as well as a intricate cave system in the looming mountains, did bring some taxis full of foreigners.  

The coffee grown was 100 percent Arabica, and required the shade from the interspersed piñon trees. Coffee plants take between three and four years to grow before ready for harvest and while they were only four to five feet tall, they were full of green coffee beans.  

We returned to the hotel early and enjoyed the pool with those same scenic mountains as a backdrop. I wonder if everyone in Cuba can just use the pool?