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«Small-Scale Urban Agriculture in Havana and the Reproduction of the ‘New Man’ in Contemporary Cuba Adriana Premat The phrase ‘Special Period in ...»

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Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe 75, octubre de 2003 |

Small-Scale Urban Agriculture in Havana and the

Reproduction of the ‘New Man’ in Contemporary Cuba

Adriana Premat

The phrase ‘Special Period in Times of Peace’ was introduced by the Cuban government in 1990 to refer to the series of economic adjustments and related deprivations brought about in that country by the acute economic crisis that followed the

break-up of the Soviet Bloc. Special Period reforms of various sectors of the economy – from tourism to agriculture – led to a decentralization of state services with their effective transferral to the private or non-state domain. Echoing the official rationale for these reforms, General Sio Wong, veteran of the revolutionary war and leading figure in Havana’s urban agriculture movement, commented: ‘Some foreigners label these measures “economic openings” but we say that they are measures we had to take to save socialism. We do not like some of them but we had to prioritize survival.’1 Despite the stated desire to ‘save socialism,’ however, analysts such as Susan Eckstein suggest that these policies have had the effect of encouraging individualistic2 practices and values more in tune with an ideal ‘capitalist’ society than with a socialist one (1994, xvi). 3 This article investigates this purported dynamic by examining the processes involved in the social production of specific spaces (Lefebvre 1998 [1974]) associated with the post-1989 ‘privatization’ of agricultural land and agricultural activities; namely, the parcelas or urban vegetable garden lots of the city of Havana. 4 Specifically, the article poses the question: is the ‘privatization’ of food production and related spaces in Cuba contributing to a transformation of the civic ethos from one that is more communitarian to one that is more individualistic?

Through its focus on the spatial production of parcelas, the paper follows Henri Lefebvre’s insight (1998 [1974]) that space is not just an innocent container of social processes but is both constituted by, and constitutive of, such processes.

Thus, we will find that to explore the way parcelas in Havana have been produced as foci of individual activity and social interaction and as meeting points of citizen and state, is to explore the dynamic of ideological and behavioural change anticipated by Eckstein in a particular arena of private initiative. In this context, especially inasmuch as space represents, in Lefebvre’s words, ‘a means of control, and hence of domination, of power’ (1998 [1974], 26), its production deserves particular attention. Indeed, a history of food and agriculture in post-1959 Cuba would be incomplete were it to overlook the spatial re-configurations that have attended changes in related policy and practice.

86 | European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 75, October 2003 Food security and agricultural production in post-1959 Cuba In his famous defence speech during the court proceedings against him for his leading role in the failed 26 July 1957 attack on the Moncada Barracks (meant to be the opening salvo in a struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship of the time), a young Fidel Castro stated that ‘it is inconceivable that people should go to sleep hungry when there is still land [in Cuba] left to be cultivated’ (1993, 65). In 1959, when the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement (named after that failed first attempt) finally came to power under Fidel Castro’s leadership, the attainment of national food security was central to the new government’s agenda. Over the years, this concern has been reflected, in part, in government policies that changed the tenure status of agricultural land as well as the organizational forms of agricultural production. This concern has also been made evident in those Cuban state policies pertaining to food distribution and commercialization.

In terms of agricultural land tenure and production, the first 30 years of pertinent revolutionary policy are encapsulated in the slogan: ‘more state property, more socialism’ (Burchardt 2000, 171). Although the first Agrarian reform, launched in 1959, gave land title to approximately 110,000 small peasants, it also transferred 44 per cent of agricultural land – in the form of large landholdings – to the state. The Second Agrarian Reform, carried out in 1963, further raised the proportion of state-owned and managed agricultural land to 63 per cent. In the 1980s, this trend culminated in a series of measures that transferred additional land to the state so that it ended up with 80 per cent of the country’s agricultural land (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1986, 162).

The objectives of these reforms were to nationalize agricultural production and to ensure the most rational allocation of resources towards satisfying domestic food needs while maximizing the production of export crops such as sugar, which remained Cuba’s main source of revenue. For decades, the revolutionary leadership appeared convinced that larger territorial units and rational state management would lead to higher agricultural production. In this context, ‘the individual small farmer – characterized by low-levels of technology and social isolation’ was perceived as ‘the most backward form of production,’ cooperatives were ranked second best,5 and state farms (known as people’s farms) – owned by ‘the people’ and worked by salaried workers – were considered the ‘superior’ form of production (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1986, 167).6 Over the years, the portion of state land used for food production varied as Cuba’s international political and economic alliances changed. Beginning in 1972, trade agreements with the Soviet Union led the Cuban government to emphasize production of sugar and citrus fruits to be exchanged for cereals and other food products from the Soviet Bloc (Burchardt 2000, 172). While some analysts note that this arrangement allowed the Cuban government to ‘provide a greater quantity and variety of foodstuffs to its population’ (Rosset and Benjamin 1994, 12), it also clearly encouraged a dangerous reliance on export monocrops. In the late 1980s, only 40 per cent of cultivable land was dedicated to the production of non-export food crops (Burchardt 2000, 172). Despite intense efforts in the early 1960s and the late 1980s to achieve self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, import dependency remained high.7 Prior to 1989, two-thirds of Cuba’s foodstuffs came from socialist Revista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe 75, octubre de 2003 | countries (Funes et al. 2002, 6). In the early 1990s, 55 per cent of the calories, 50 per cent of the proteins, and 90 per cent of the fats consumed in Cuba were imported (Burchardt 2000, 173).

The attainment of national food security, however, remained explicitly central to the government’s project. This project entailed more than the management of agricultural land and production; it included the equitable distribution of basic food products, national or imported, at affordable prices through the rationing system.

Regardless of its various flaws (Benjamin, Collins, and Scott 1986, 80-81; Dumont 1970), the ration, instituted on 12 March 1962, more than any other Cuban institution instilled in citizens the notion of national food equity while recreating the state as its guarantor (Premat 1998; Díaz Vázquez 2000, 55). Except for a brief period of experimentation with the Farmers’ Free Market in the 1980s, for decades the state remained the primary food provider – it was in charge of the ration, the parallel markets, and the allocation of food to schools and workplaces. It was also the official buyer of agricultural products from independent farmers.

This situation changed radically in 1989 with the onset of the Special Period.

As imports of food, oil, and agricultural inputs from the Soviet Union dropped drastically, the Cuban government found itself both unable to produce sufficient food on its large state farms and unable to efficiently distribute to the cities what little food was produced. Encouraging food production in general, and localized food production in particular, became a governmental priority. As Chief of the Armed Forces and leading revolutionary figure Raúl Castro Ruz put it: ‘Today, we are affirming that beans are more valuable than guns’ (1994). Food production was no longer the prerogative of a specialized sector of the population; it became the duty of all ‘good revolutionaries’, the means through which the current struggle against adversity would have to be waged.

Among the measures taken to deal with this severe food crisis were a series of reforms that resulted in the transfer – through usufruct rights – of 70 per cent of Cuba’s agricultural land, then under state ownership and management, to independent individuals or to producers organized in peasant associations and cooperatives (Burchardt 2000). This situation represented an abrupt reversal of the trend that had defined the previous 30 years of state agricultural policy. 8 The reforms not only affected traditional agricultural land but also land without any previous agricultural history insofar as, beginning in 1991, urban plots in places like Havana were converted to agricultural production (Funes et al. 2002; Rosset and Benjamin 1994; Murphy 1999).

In general, these measures led to an atomization of food production and a decreased reliance on the state as primary food provider – a situation furthered through a series of additional reforms, such as the opening of agricultural markets and agricultural produce stalls (puntos de venta), that made it possible for agricultural producers to market part, if not all, of their outputs independently from the state.

Such commercialization was not only legalized but was presented in a positive light in official discourses. For example, asserting the need to overcome ideological resistance to the linkage of agricultural labour with individual material reward or profit, Raúl Castro commented: ‘It is imperative to undo the knots that are stopping productivity,’ further stating that ‘he who earns 1,000 pesos honestly is welEuropean Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 75, October 2003 come to do it’ (in Pages 1997). In sharp contrast with the rhetoric of the prior period, known in Cuba as the ‘Period of Rectification of Errors and Negative Tendencies,’ when moral rather than material incentives were emphasized in government discourses, these measures and pronouncements signified an official seal of approval for private solutions to problems, such as food insecurity, that until then had been the responsibility of the state.

This was the general context out of which there emerged, in urban Cuba, the small-scale agricultural sites today known as the parcelas. 9 It is to these sites that the analysis now turns.

Parcelas and the privatization of public land

The parcelas of Havana are urban lots of no more than 1000 m2, given in usufruct to private citizens who work them primarily for the purpose of family selfprovisioning, although sales are allowed either on-site or through agricultural stalls. These sites, which numbered 26,000 in 1996 (Chaplowe 1996), are usually located near the producer’s home and their use is relatively free of explicit restrictions from the state. The only requirement for the maintenance of usufruct rights is that the lot be used for agricultural production. Prior to their creation, parcelas, as abandoned public land, were open spaces freely and informally used by members of the surrounding community for some other purpose, whether as garbage dumps or meeting grounds for children or youth. Their projected long-term function, according to the urban planning sector, was and still is, in the majority of cases, to house multi-family residential units to alleviate the crowded living conditions endemic to the city.

In spite of their prior definition and use as ‘public’ land, once brought under agricultural production, parcelas became absorbed into the private domain in both appearance and function.

One of the most important founding acts in the creation of parcelas involves the clearing and cleaning of the lot. Informants often characterized this as an act of saneamiento (sanitization) of a place that, left to the community at a time when the state was unable to exert control over it, had become a site for disease-breeding and social disorder. Many producers commented that the local authorities had actually asked them to ‘recuperate’ these areas, turning useless and unhealthy sites into good, productive ones. That this was accomplished primarily through the effort (and expense) of the would-be producer was highlighted in many interviews,10 as was the notion that personal labour invested on the site somehow secured private rights over it. As a particularly confident producer stated: ‘Who is going to take this away from me, after all the work I’ve done on it?’11 This de facto appropriation of a public, common space by private citizens is reflected in the physical appearance of the sites. Parcelas are usually fenced off.

Although the fences no doubt serve to protect the lot from theft or damage, they also re-create the space as private. This trend contrasts greatly with experiences of the early years of the revolution when, as I was told, fences were torn down to create a uniform and open landscape out of the agricultural lands surrounding Havana, as these were converted into ‘people’s farms.’ Physical links that underscore the connection between parcelas and the private residences of producers are not unRevista Europea de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe 75, octubre de 2003 | common. Thus, one of the urban vegetable gardens studied is connected by a climbing plant to the private home of one of the main producers across the street.

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