August 16, 2021
Miriam Leiva

Cuban Agriculture: Strategic But Inert

One of the many existing theories about the origin of the name “Cuba” refers to a word from the natives of the island that meant “cultivated land.” Although we are not sure that this is correct, we do know that the immense possibilities for agriculture, together with an excellent climate and a good geographical position, marked the value of a Caribbean island that otherwise lacked great natural resources.

Throughout Cuban history, the development of agriculture retained a position of special interest. Since the colonial era, the island became the largest producer of sugar cane in the world, a trend that increased during a large part of the republican years.

Perhaps because of this, anyone would have thought that after the supposed return of the land to its “owners,” the nascent revolution would focus on the development of one of the island’s main riches. But was it so?

Today, 529 years after Cuba was discovered, and after 61 years of land mismanagement, Cuban agriculture faces one of its worst crises marked by a chronic inability to produce food. It is in this context that the government has announced the application of 63 measures with the aim of rescuing an agricultural system that, although recognized as strategic, lies inert before our eyes. Seven groups of stakeholders, among which are agricultural executives, experts, academics, and prominent producers, were consulted in their formulation.

The measures have been described by the current minister of agriculture, Ydael Pérez, as “(…) unprecedented in Cuban agriculture (…)”. They include initiatives such as an agricultural development bank, insurance expansion, the repeal of some of the old “obstacles,” and the legalization of trade of meat and bovine milk. Additionally, some restructuring carried out in the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) and in the cooperatives stand out, as well as a certain level of autonomy placed in the hands of state companies, provincial governments, and their local executives. Finally, the creation of an Innovation Committee and other new institutions are also notable and aim to achieve the long-awaited increase in production that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke about.

These measures could be considered the prelude to “changing the way of thinking,” as the head of agriculture pointed out. However, and despite the high expectations generated by this supposed call for change, the results of these measures do not satisfy the expectations of the people and especially those of farmers, who lack decision making freedom.

A real change, which is becoming more and more necessary, should begin with profound transformations in MINAG, not just superficial ones. Transformations that encompass management chain cadres, intermediaries, and the producers themselves, but above all, that revolutionize the state enterprise system, where the greatest inefficiencies in production and marketing are found. It won’t be until then that we reach the goal of substituting imports and building a sustainable offer, which Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz spoke about on May 10 during the meeting to present this document.

So, one wonders, under what conditions are these measures announced?

The Tarea Ordenamiento (or “Organizing Task” or “OT”) was introduced on January 1st, 2021, a process promoted by the Cuban Government which is trying to save the island’s economy through monetary and exchange rate unification, income reform, and the elimination of excessive subsidies, among others. The O.T. shocked Cuban farmers with the low prices attributed to their production in relation to the high costs of necessary supplies and services. As is to be expected, this combination was terribly inefficient and as a consequence discouraged production. In the middle of this scenario, the government adjusted electricity and water rates, agricultural aviation, and others, in some cases at the expense of the state budget. But did it solve the problem?

The answer is, no, it did not. The fundamental objective of the new export and import capabilities (which must be done through state foreign trade companies) and the offers of agricultural inputs, tractors, and other equipment in stores that sell in Freely Convertible Currencies (dollars, euros, etc.) was to motivate farmers to invest, but it is unlikely they will carry out bold ventures without having guarantees of returns on their investments or that their profits will be respected. Let us not forget that the Constitution itself stipulates the limits for the accumulation of wealth in non-state hands.

Stubborn Problems

There are many problems to be solved in this attempt to revive Cuba’s inert agricultural system. The deputy prime minister himself, Jorge Luis Tapia Fonseca, pointed out some of the principal ones in his April 14th speech on the Mesa Redonda radio and television program. In said meeting, Tapia referred to overburdened agricultural structures; the non-separation of state functions from business ones; an excess of intermediaries outside of production which increase costs; low productivity; the little use of science and technology; and the deficiencies in land use and tenure.

However, these are not the only problems that affect the agricultural sector; the current food crisis in Cuba is nothing new, it is more like an aggravated phenomenon with deep roots. Farmers have always had to plant what was established by the authorities instead of the market. As if that were not enough, they have to allocate most of their crops for the so-called state quota at the centralized price set by the government, or for the local level at the decentralized price, which is supposed to be agreed upon on a monthly basis. Added to this are the price caps, forced sales to inefficient state storage entities, and the accumulation of debt by private producers and cooperatives, who have to collaborate with companies controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture as the only alternative for profiting from their production.

Nor can we forget the labor force shortage caused by migration from the countryside to the cities. A phenomenon that is the result of harsh working conditions, low economic benefits, little housing construction, limitations in the public service network, and an aging population.

Although at present the need for adequate agreements and contract fulfillments has been recognized, and measures have been adopted that seek to mitigate these problems and achieve the return of young people to family lands, as well as to stimulate usufructuaries, we must consider that the solution will not come in the short term.

The Land

Cuba has 10,400,000 hectares of land of which 6,400,755 are used for agriculture (58%), of which 3,120,926 are cultivated (49%), and 7.2% are under irrigation. Cooperatives and the private sector manage 4,672,551 (73%) and the state sector manages 1,728,204 (27%). Of the soils, 70% have a low content of organic matter; 20% are very productive or productive and the remaining 70% yield low productivity due to salinity, erosion, and low fertility.

The 2020-2021 Zafra bordered 807,742 tons of sugar, of which some 400,000 are committed to China, while the rest will be dedicated (presumably insufficiently) to supplying the rationing system for the population. Thus, being once the largest exporter of sugar in the world, it will have to import it (again) and at a time when world market prices seem excessive for the empty coffers of the state.

Yet, the subsidies for the four products considered strategic remain: rice, corn for animal feed, industrial tomato, and robust coffee. The prices of wet paddy rice, black beans, live pigs, potatoes, and chicken eggs will continue to be fixed at the central level, while the rest will be determined by local governments, as has been officially announced. Rice production also fell sharply due to cuts in fuel and some of the essential fertilizers such as urea despite a special program implemented for sustained growth, and the collaboration of Viet Nam and Japan for their contribution of modern techniques and equipment.

In the cold and spring harvests of this year, several crops were affected considerably due to a deficit of fuel, fertilizers, and other resources. The 43,500-hectare bean plan was readjusted to 23,800, which will not cover the rationing fee. As for the planting of root crops, expectations were fulfilled, but the production of garlic fell short at 68%, peppers at 76%, cabbage at 77%, Chinese cabbage at 38%, and carrots at 48%. According to reports from Granma (May 25), the spring planting of bananas was also affected by the lack of fertilizer, although according to the newspaper, it could recover with favorable levels of rain.

The Livestock

The total number of cattle is 3,817,000, of which 552,900 are state owned and 3,264,800 are privately owned. There is a distribution in both sectors of 328,300 in Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), of 118,400 in Cooperativa de Producción Agropecuaria (CPA) and about 2,818 100 in private farms, according to the ONEI Statistical Yearbook 2019. It is interesting that the exact real amount is unknown due to the “loans” between the entities before inspections by state authorities. In addition, the sustained decrease in deaths caused by lack of food, water, among other causes, is evident. The government has recognized the impossibility of recovering livestock in the short term, due to the loss and high economic investment that would be essential. Currently, small livestock breeding is being encouraged, which is very incipient.

The procedures for the slaughter, consumption, and commercialization of bovine meat, and for the commercialization of fresh cow, buffalo and goat milk and their derivatives, were contemplated in Resolutions No. 139 / 2021 and No. 140 / 2021 of the MINAG, which came into force on June 4 and surprised everyone by recognizing property rights. This is intended to update the more than 42 years of persecution, fines, and jailing of cattle owners.

In accordance with the above, a farmer is allowed to slaughter for consumption and sale one animal out of three that increases in the herd. This would mean a yearling calf, a young bull, and an adult bull, in addition to females that are not suitable for reproduction. All of this must be done with prior certification from the competent authority. For this, the farmer must be registered in the Land and Livestock Control Registry and have fulfilled the commitments of the state commission. Applications for authorization are submitted to the municipal delegations of Agriculture, and the slaughters must be carried out in local, municipal slaughterhouses. The owners will be able to sell in the slaughterhouse, within the specialized network approved by municipal governments, at tourism entities, within a network of stores, the markets in freely convertible currency, the Mariel Special Development Zone, and other authorized destinations. As for the commercialization of fresh milk from cows, buffaloes, goats and their derivatives, the prices are established by the Council of Ministers. Dairy and retail companies can contract directly for the sale.

Hired cow milk producers, who cannot deliver fresh milk due to the distance between the place of production and where it is collected, will be able to convert it into cheese. The producers will contract goat and buffalo milk with the Dairy Company to cover special diets, according to the needs of the territory. This commercialization can be carried out in tourism entities, a network of stores, the markets in freely convertible currency (MLC), the Mariel Special Development Zone, and others authorized for this purpose.

The Agricultural Cooperatives

The former minister of agriculture, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, “rescued” some 3,220 agricultural cooperatives with an unfavorable economic situation, which represents 66% of the existing ones, as explained in a videoconference with the provincial and municipal delegates of the sector held on March 1st. According to Rodríguez Rollero, complex situations exist with the members of the Boards of Directors and cooperatives of 74% of Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS), 67% of Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) and 54% of the United Basic Cooperative Production (UBPC).

With the aim of “rescuing” these cooperatives, a Temporary Work Group (GTT) was created, made up of provincial and municipal groups and subgroups, as well as representatives of organizations and institutions related to the operation of these productive structures, in addition to universities and research centers. This group will determine the measures deployed to rescue, strengthen, and consolidate the results of the cooperatives’ work, or decide their dissolution in the cases that they consider pertinent.

State Agricultural Enterprises

State-owned companies only manage 27% of the land and generate 22% of production. As can be seen, the numbers by themselves do not justify their existence. However, the government continues to bet on the socialist state enterprise, and for this it has identified 54 measures and demanded proactive behavior on their part.

On this subject, the Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero, stressed that they will not continue to support and much less increase state companies so that they live off of the producers. The premier added that “the improvement has to be real, it cannot be superficial with some changes; each change has to be aimed at producing more food (…) to achieve prosperous, efficient companies with stimulated workers.”


The crisis in Cuban agriculture is serious, and the solutions to its main problems—lack of production, little application of science and technology, low stimulation of the productive forces, etc.—need the immediate commitment of all its actors.

The 63 measures recently announced are still insufficient, since they do not completely eliminate the Cuban farmers’ lack of decision-making freedom; however, these are the prelude to future changes.

The current government has before it the responsibility of pulling Cuba off the cliff, amidst the adversities imposed by the United States sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic, which demands a true openness to citizen participation and creativity from all Cubans.

Miriam Leiva is an independent journalist.

Illustration by Maikel Martínez Pupo. You can find him @MaikelStudio @maikelmartinezpupo.