Can Cuba Offer An alternative to Corporate Control Over the World’s Food System?

Joseph Tharamangalam
Saturday, March 1, 2014

Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax NS, Canada


(paper presented at  the 20th Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and

Social Scientists, Havana, June, 2008)

Give us this day our daily bread. (The only prayer Jesus is reported to have taught his followers)

With all the authority of hindsight, it is important to analyze and criticize the methods Cuba has chosen to eradicate hunger…. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the Cuban revolution declared, from the outset, that no one should go malnourished. No disappointment in food production, no failed economic take-off, no shock wave from world economic crisis has deterred Cuba from freeing itself from the suffering and shame of a single wasted child or an elderly person ignonimously subsisting on pet food. No other country in this hemisphere, including the United States, can make this claim” (Benjamin et al.189)


This paper draws on an ongoing research project that compares the human development experience of Cuba and the state of Kerala in India, two well known success stories that have achieved an impressive measure of human well being without waiting for the so called trickle down effect of industrial development or wealth creation. Their remarkable achievements (as measured by UNDP’s human development (HD) indictors) have been hailed by many scholars and policy makers. Our research project seeks to identify common patterns in the development experience of these cases and to explore possible lessons for the world, especially for the one fifth of humanity still suffering from chronic poverty and endemic deprivations.

The paper explores the theme of food security in Cuba. Although the UNDP’s measure of HD does not directly factor in food security it is obviously at the very foundation of any system of human development and well-being. The issue of food security has assumed a new urgency in the context of the current world food crisis that is threatening to plunge as many as 100 million people into hunger in addition to the 850 million already in a situation of chronic hunger. As is well known, faced with an even more serious food crisis some two decades ago,  Cuba launched a daring and unconventional agricultural revolution, regarded by some as the very “anti-thesis” of the Washington consensus and labeled as an “anti model” by a spokesperson of the World Bank.  Many experts who have studied the Cuban experience (including some from Oxfam, FAO, and the WFP) now believe that Cuba may offer some lessons to those searching for alternatives to the current world food system that has failed so miserably in providing food security to vast numbers of people and has destroyed the ability of communities and countries to exercise any control over their food system.

The remainder of the paper is divided into 3 parts: A brief overview of Cuba’s post- 1990 agricultural revolution is followed by the main part of the paper that discusses some important elements of what may be called Cuba’s alternative paradigm. The concluding part will raise questions about sustainability and food security.

Cuba’s New Agricultural Revolution:  From Crisis to Recovery

Historically, Cuba has had a classical colonial agricultural system that produced sugar for export, and served the interests of a metropolitan elite based first in Spain and then in the US. After the revolution Cuba became dependent on the Soviet Union and its trading partners. This resulted in an agricultural system characterized by three notable features:  1) its dependence on the USSR for almost all its trade albeit on very favorable terms; 2) its adoption of  the  Soviet model of large-scale high input and state owned agriculture, and 3) its heavy dependence on food imports.

With the dissolution of the Soviet trading system,  Cuba was plunged into a major crisis including a 30% fall in food availability.  Among the country’s highest priorities was the need to transform its agriculture from a high-input to a low input, self-reliant, small scale and viable agriculture. To this end Cuba launched a series of reforms that transformed its agricultural system radically.  In sharp contrast to the experience of other third world countries around the same time, Cuba’s was structural adjustment  with a difference – one that was premised upon relying on the country’s own resources and committed to maintaining its social safety net and social programs.

Many careful observers have noted that through a process of intense mobilization of state and society Cuba overcame the worst forms of food shortages in a matter of some five years, and did so without seriously compromising its social programs or human development achievements.  (Koont, 2004, Malhotra, 2000, Sinclair and Thompson, 2004).  Sinclair and Thompson (Oxfam America) have made the claim that “Cuba has successfully turned a severe food crisis into a sustained recovery in food production”. And a report by the Food First Institute says that “…by mid-1995 the food shortage had been overcome, drastic reductions to the food supply of the vast majority of Cubans was over” (Rosset, 2000). The same report adds (210) that in the 1996-97 growing season, Cuba recorded its highest ever production levels for 10 of the 13 basic food items in the Cuban diet- and the increase came primarily from small farms.  The World Wild Life Fund has listed Cuba as the only country following a sustainable path to development in that it has achieved high HD (greater than 0.8) with low ecological footprint (less than 1.8 hectares). In 1999 the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) was awarded to the Cuban Organic Farming Association (GAO).

Towards an Alternative Paradigm

Elements of a Paradigm

Based on the Cuban experience I identify 7 elements of an alternative paradigm for a sustainable agricultural system that may also provide a basis for food security to Cuba and the world. These are indicative rather than exhaustive, and are drawn heavily on the works of such organizations as the Food First Institute (eg., Rosset, 2003), Oxfam America (eg., Sinclair and Thompson, 2004) and supplemented by our own research during the past 3 years.

1. Ecological Farming

The Cuban government confronted the crisis of the 1990s by declaring a Special Period in Peacetime, and launched a national effort to convert the country’s agricultural sector from high input to low input and self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale (Rosset, 2003, 207). The principles and strategies of a holistic system of agro-ecology were put into practice (Funes et. Al., xiii). These included:

-use of biofertilizers such as earthworms, compost, natural rock phosphate, animal and green manures, and the integration of gracing animals.

-use of biopesticides such as resistant plant varieties, crop rotations and natural antagonists to combat plant pathogens, and better rotations and cover cropping to suppress weeds;

-a move from capital-intensive to knowledge-intensive agriculture; knowledge generated not only by extensive and innovative scientific research, but also by recovering people’s accumumulated knowledge, integrating the two and maintaining synergy between the two(Claudio, 1999);

-animal traction in place of fuel-hungry tractors and other machines;

- urban farms which were first introduced in the aftermath of the food shortages and rising food prices. “Once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions” (Rosset, 2003, 210). Oxfam America reported that urban gardens were now (2003-2004) producing half of all vegetables consumed by Havana’s 2 million inhabitants (Sinclair and Thompson);

-creation and maintenance of within-farm synergies.

Cuba has now proven that organic farming is productive and viable.

2. Decentralization and Diversification:

Emphasis is now placed on small farms and local production, relying on local resources and adaptation to the local ecosystem and the needs of the local community.

Cuba’s success in ecological farming is essentially a success of small farms and small farmers. Large state farms were broken up and redistributed precisely because they had proven to be unsuccessful in adapting to the technology and social organization of organic farming. Small farmers were able to put to use their memory and experience of an earlier form of farming. Most important, it was discovered that in state farms worker alienation was high and productivity low. By contrast, the small farms adopting organic farming were characterised by high levels of worker participation and enthusiasm.

Diversification has had several dimensions- products and exports, types of producers and their relationship to land (land tenure), markets, and finally the economy itself which has opened up more space for private actors while maintaining a strong state sector in critical areas.

Local production also eliminates the need for wasteful transportation, packaging and storage while supplying fresh food to local people.

To facilitate the above, the ministry of agriculture and its administrative structure has also been decentralized.

The Cuban experience has shown the viability of small farms.  Peter Rosset ( 2003) contrasts these small farms with the high input industrial farms which, he argues, are kept viable only with huge subsidies by government. And this is not counting the high ecological deficits incurred and the massive scale of the externalization of costs. In terms of classical theoretical debates about the viability of the family farm, it would seem that it  is Chayanov, not Kautsky who seems to be carrying the day.

3. Redistribution of Land to the Farmers

Redistribution of land is a prerequisite for creating the small farm sector that has proven to be suitable for ecological farming. In sharp contrast to increasing concentration of land that followed neoliberal reforms in other Latin American countries, Cuba’s land reforms during the special period effectively broke up state farms and redistributed these to a variety of cooperatives and to large numbers of individual farmers. By 1996 there were 2654 Basic Units of Cooperative Production or UBPCs (Enriqez 204) - data from CEPAL 2000, 313). These played their largest role in sugarcane, also in citrus, rice and livestock. State farm sector fell from 82% to 14.4%.

Apparently reviving an earlier idea, the program aimed at “linking people with land”. These farms provided the farmers a greater sense of control and ownership, which, in turn contributed to a greater sense of belonging and greater productivity. “We went to bed as workers and woke up in the morning as owners” as the manager of a successful UBPC told us referring to the creation of that UBPC. (farmer in a UBPC visited by author in December, 2007).

4. A Democratic State Committed to Public Provisioning for its People

The role of the state is critical in two respects. First, it has been amply proven by researchers (especially those associated with the UNDP’s HD Reports) that few societies have achieved high human development without substantial state intervention in public provisioning in the areas of education, health and basic social security. This remains true even in societies (including the US) in which free market capitalism is touted as the dominant ideology (Sen, 2000). Cuba is a well known case in this respect. In Cuba such public provisioning has included a food rationing system that is a controversial issue today, re-examined and debated by policy makers within Cuba, vilified by the country’s detractors as the quintessential sin of socialism, the subject of continuous complaint by many Cuban citizens, who, nevertheless, have come to take it for granted and to expect the “minimum food basket” it provides as a basic entitlement. First launched in March, 1962, as a temporary measure to deal with food shortages, it has, over the years, been probably the single most important institution responsible for the elimination of hunger and malnutrition, the hallmark of Cuba’s uniqueness in the world. But, burdened by high costs, purported inefficiency and a bloated bureaucracy needed to administer it, the system is likely to be   redesigned or replaced by such measures as more targeted security or income supplement (Benjamin et al., Alvarez). There is, however, a bottom line that stands out crystal clear: as the quotation at the beginning of this paper makes clear, Cuba’s record in eliminating hunger and mal-nutrition remains unmatched in the hemisphere and certainly in the third world. Furthermore, there is ample evidence across the world that no society has eliminated hunger and mal-nutrition, or come close to doing this, without some state-supported public provision for its poorest and vulnerable population. Cuba’s ration system has been premised on the principles of universal accessibility and equity, a bold initiative to ensure every person’s basic right to food and other basic necessities. It would seem that some policy of this kind would be integral to a paradigm for a just and equitable system of food security.

Second, it is also important to have state support extended to its farmers, especially to the most vulnerable sections of a country’s small farmers. In this respect , Cuba stands out as the contrarian par excellence.  While other third world governments were abandoning their farmers in the wake of neoliberal reforms, the Cuban government made extraordinary efforts to support its farmers with all the resources at its command.  And unlike the former, the Cuban state maintained its sovereignty exercising full control over the policies affecting its agriculture and food security. To be sure, such support for farmers must be subject to international trade agreements, but the absence of real fair trade is the hallmark of the current world system, and at the root of  the current food crisis.

5. Democratic Participation

Complementing the strong and proactive state were the newly expanded and strengthened local level democratic institutions of popular participation that now play an increasing role in planning and governance. Popular participation is an essential ingredient of the new agricultural system, especially in the cooperatives. Participation extends to all areas of farming including research, extension, and implementation; and most important, the produce is distributed in accordance with a democratic decision-making process.  The instruments of democratic participation are well organized and institutionalized. For example, the UBPCs are managed by committees elected by secret ballots. The high levels of informed participation in these cooperatives can be described by using the concepts of “deep democracy” and “high energy democracy” – concepts that have been used to describe democracy in Kerala.

It is clear that the expansion of space for such participation and control by individuals and communities has meant some reduction in the role and control formerly exercised by the Cuban state. And this process has not been without tension and contradictions (eg., the role of the independent farmers’ association, ANAIC, Alvarez, 1999; Claudio, 1999). Nevertheless, the viability and effectiveness of the process has depended on the overall  synergy between state and society, between local democratic institutions that continuously feed into the working of the central government which, in turn, supports the former. There can be little doubt that popular participation has been a critical element in the success of these farms.

6. Fair Price for Farmers

One of the sources of the current food crisis afflicting the third world in the world has been the declining incomes of farmers in the wake of neoliberal reforms and the import of cheap food from outside. Many independent farmers in countries such as India and South Korea have been driven to desperation and even suicide. By contrast, Cuba’s reforms have led to significant increase in the incomes of farmers relative to other sectors of society, in particular urban salary earners.  This has been noted as a major factor behind Cuba’s re-peasantization movement though this movement may have been initially triggered by people fleeing the cities in search of food during the period of the earlier food crisis.

The Cuban experience also shows what small farmers can do if they can get the WTO off their backs.

7. A New Process of Re-Peasantization?

During the special period, especially at the height of the food shortages, there was a process of urbanites migrating to rural areas in search of food and work in farming. Many stayed back attracted by more stable jobs, higher income and access to better food. Some sociologists (Enriquez, 2003) have referred to this as a process of re-peasantization. We do not have any precise data about the extent of this process or if it has continued into the present period. Enriqez (p208) reports that in a study she conducted in several cooperatives in different parts of the country 25% of the sample population she interviewed were former urban workers. Farmers in Cuba today have higher incomes relative to salary earners, and this is true even in the poorer eastern provinces. Needless to say, they also eat much better, and have much better food security.

The re-peasantization movement may point to a possible answer to the question of how small-scale organic farming can be made viable in a country with a small population that has now been at the third stage of the demographic transition for some three generations. The problem of a declining and aging population is compounded by historical prejudices that associate farming and rural life with lower status and less desirable life-style. However, we can argue that Cuba has some unique advantages in addressing some of these issues. First, it has the most modernized and educated peasantry in the world which has achieved human development indicators that are on par with, if not higher than, those of their counterparts in the developed world.  Its decentralized system of education and healthcare ensures that farmers’ access to these valued resources is not very different from that of urban dwellers.  Cuba’s recent reforms promoting greater decentralization have included the decentralization of tertiary education and its university system. Similarly its political, administrative and cultural systems are also decentralized.

These factors make it possible for Cuba to integrate far more closely not only its agricultural economy with its non-agricultural economy, but also its rural culture and life-style with its urban and national culture and life-style.  This process has the potential of creating a rural-urban continuum that will reduce the gap between rural, agricultural life on the one hand and urban non-agricultural life on the other.  Arguably, this has reversed the process of rapid urbanization that occurred in Cuba in the 1980s, and may offer a lesson to the countries in the world plagued by an endless process of urbanization and centralization.

The urbanized rural areas which have access to similar educational, health and other services and cultural facilities available in the cities will also complement the cities that have been revitalized with urban farming. Elements of such a model of a rural-urban continuum already exist in the state of Kerala in India where the problem now is one of maintaining the economic viability of growing food crops to ensure long-term food security.

Cuba is experiencing nothing less than a new cultural revolution, a transformation in people’s consciousness (especially ecological consciousness) and world-view, a  re-definition of people’s relationship to nature, a commitment to sustaining the earth, and above all, a renewed commitment to the humanist and socialist project the country embarked on half a century ago.

Food Sovereignty?

While this is too complex an issue to address within the scope of this paper, it can be said that the Cuban state has continued to exercise full control over all the important decisions concerning agriculture and food, and has continued to keep its people free of hunger. By contrast, most third world governments, including those who were democratically elected, have stood helplessly  in the face of neoliberal policies and WTO rules that produced greater food insecurity, more food shortages, and increasing hunger in their countries.

A Sustainable Model?

The Cuban experience shows that its innovative model of agriculture has been sustainable ecologically, socially and politically. A major issue of sustainability in the future will be the mode of its integration into the global system, and that will depend very much on what happens to Cuba- US relations. For now all indications are that Cuba will assert its sovereignty over its agricultural and food policy. It is resourceful, and it has some unique resources to export including knowledge and models. Cuban agricultural extension workers (like Cuban doctors, social workers, and literacy promoters) are already working in other countries. It has niche markets for some of its products such as pharmaceuticals, and of course, its organic produce. It is already exporting organic produce to Germany and Canada. The situation may change drastically if a market for its organic produce were to open up in the US.

Another challenge will be whether in a changed international situation Cuba’s successful farmers will be tempted to return to the high input model of industrial agriculture.

Food Security?

Cuba still has serious food shortages and depends heavily on imports. It even imports food from the US for hard cash. In 2007 the country spent 1.5 billion dollars on food imports, an increase of some 24% from the previous year due to the higher food prices (Grogg, 2008); its purchase from the US alone amounted to $447, 065,000. (US Census Bureau, Trade Stats for Cuba).  Not surprisingly, food is one of the most recurrent themes raised at all policy debates in the country. Raul Castro himself recently assured Cubans that the issue will be given the highest priority (Crogg, 2008). He said:  “The country is working on this vital issue with the urgency it requires, because of its direct and daily impact on the lives of the people, especially those with the lowest incomes”.

Cuba faces many problems in reaching self-sufficiency including that of a small, declining and aging population with only less than 20% of them rural. Other issues include the historically low status of farmers, and low productivity.  One answer to these problems may be the process described in 1, 7 above.

Assuming Cuba will succeed in substantially increasing its food production, the question still remains if it will ever reach self-sufficiency. But is food security to be equated with self-sufficiency? Or will Cuba (like several other countries) have to resort to the principle of comparative advantage and trade some of its other products for food? Perhaps this question is now premature, if not irrelevant, since the country is still a long way from maximising its productivity and reaching its real potential. It is likely that we will soon witness another major national effort of the kind seen during the special period to increase food production. It is reported that Cuba is already seeking foreign investment in domestic agriculture (Al Campbell, 2008) - presumably in the form of joint ventures and in a manner in which such investment can be integrated into its new paradigm). The analysis provided in this paper seems to provide reasonable grounds to believe that Cuba will be successful in this effort.


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