Food Sovereignty and Cooperatives in Cuba’s Socialism

Satisfying the basic material and cultural needs of their citizens remains an unfulfilled promise for the majority of the world’s states. Cuba’s 1976 Constitution (amended 1992) made this an official goal (article 17). It also guarantees everyone a minimum supply of food, which is the basis for all other activities. At the height of Soviet socialism this was assured by a combination of subsidized imports and state distribution. As a socialist state with control over the fundamental means of production, including most land, the Cuban state was in a position to make the legal disposition a reality. And in fact, just prior to the collapse of the ‘socialist world system’, of which Cuba had become an integral part, it had “achieved exceptionally high levels of average food consumption by ‘Third World’ standards: in 1989, per capita daily consumption reached 2,834 calories” (Deere 1992: 2). Yet, only four years later, in the worst times of the ‘Special Period’, this number had fallen from 98% to 60% of the necessary nutritional needs, as defined by the World Food and Agricultural Organization (Funes & Freyre 2009: 8).

Responding to this challenge, the government in 1993 decentralized production and initially distributed state lands to cooperatives (as will be discussed in this article), intensifying a process of reforms and experiments to increase productivity. These measures formed part of a process that preceded and structured the reforms that have been enacted since 2008. In the early 1990s, the agrarian reform was confined to “exceptional cases” where socialist ownership can be modified in accordance with article 15 of the Constitution, that is, when it contributes to the “development of the country” and “does not affect the fundamental political, social and economic goals of the state.” Hence the reassurance, in the recent party-guidelines for the update of the economic model, that “the economic system that prevails continues to be based on socialist property” even though “other forms of economic activities” are being recognized and encouraged, namely: foreign investment, cooperatives, small farmers, and others (PCC 2011).

As this article shows, cooperatives became an important part of Cuban agriculture. Yet, while trying desperately to meet basic needs – by increasing productivity ‘at all costs’ – the state gave new consideration not only to different forms of ownership but also to ecological and environmental concerns.

Twenty years after the collapse of the 20th-century state-centered socialist models, Cuba is searching for a viable and sustainable model that overcomes its own errors from the past while learning from experiences elsewhere, in both socialist and capitalist contexts. Like all processes in real life, this one is highly contradictory and with uncertain results. Private farmers, cooperatives, state farms and foreign companies are all competing ‘in the field’, as are small-scale ecological practices, large-scale high-input modes of production as well as genetically modified food projects.1

The goal of this article is to enrich and historicize the current debate on cooperatives and the future of Cuban socialism. I will examine the antecedents of current reforms in the agricultural sector, analyze the context in which they evolved, and provide an overview of the most recent developments. In my view, small-scale, agro-ecological farming in a cooperative environment seems to be the most promising way to increase productivity on a sustainable basis while also meeting local demands and empowering the involved actors.

The problem

In the summer of 2009 Cuba’s newly inaugurated president Raúl Castro declared food security an issue of national security (26.7.2009). The year before, three hurricanes had devastated the island, causing losses tantamount to 20% of GDP, much of it in agriculture. That year, Cuba imported food items worth $2.2 billion (ONE 2010).2 Since that time, the country has been striving to replace imports with domestic production, most importantly of food. It is in this context that the government decided to issue a law that allowed for the additional distribution of unused state land to individuals and cooperatives in time-limited usufruct.3 More than half of Cuba’s agricultural land (which is roughly half of the island’s total surface) had become idle (3.5 million hectares), mostly as a consequence of the demise of the sugar industry that had relied on the Soviet Union for inputs. Since then and until July 2012, 1.5 million hectares have been given to some 163,000 farmers (Cuba Debate 17.5.2012). To put this number into context, 2.8 million Cubans or one fourth of the population live in rural areas. This ratio may now increase, reversing the prior trend of rural emigration to urban centers (ONE 2012).

Cuba’s socialist agriculture is often ridiculed by outside critics. This does not always take the extreme form of Dennis Avery’s article “Cubans starve on diet of lies” (Hudson Institute, April 9, 2009),4 which could easily be dismissed as the ideological rant of a Cold Warrior had it not had such an impact. The author, a former State Department employee, cites the American agricultural attaché in Havana to present a figure according to which Cuba imports 84% of its food, thereby supposedly belying all Cuban efforts. This figure has since made it into most mainstream media as a standard and unquestioned truth, and has even been echoed in some Cuban media. In reality, this ‘official Cuban figure’ was a statement by then Vice-Minister of the Economy and Planning Ministry, Magalys Calvo, for a specific year only, and referred to items in the basic food basket and on the ration card (the part that the Cuban government heavily subsidizes), some of which cannot be produced in Cuba (certain cereals, oil crops, etc.) but which is believed to cover no more than 30% of actual current food consumption (Funes Monzote 2012: 2). Based on available FAO statistics, the percentage of imports for all food consumed in Cuba has steadily decreased from a high of 70% in 1980 to some 40% in 1997 (the last year for which those statistics are available), although obviously still more is desired. This number is to be distinguished from the share of the value of food items as a percentage of total imports. In a comparative perspective, among 23 Latin American nations that are net food-importers, Cuba is not exceptional. In 2010, the island imported food items worth ca. $1.5 billion out of a total of $10.6 billion of imports, that is ca. 14% (ONE 2010), only slightly above the continental average. What makes the Cuban case special however is that the state has very little liquid foreign currency to purchase these items.5 The question then arises whether these problems are all caused by socialist policies (as claimed by many foreign critics), and what have been the government’s responses? Before examining in more detail the recent changes of agricultural policies, it is helpful to recall the historical development of Cuban agriculture prior to the revolution in order to understand the situation and challenges to which they reacted as well as the structures the revolution inherited.

Historical background

After colonial conquest and destruction of the prevailing indigenous agriculture, Cuba has never again been self-sufficient in its food production, nor was it expected to be. In the 16th century large estates were given by the Spanish Crown to its colonists in usufruct, mostly for cattle-raising. Only as indigenous providers of vegetables and fruits died out, and along with them their productive forms of intensive local gardening, known as conuco, did the Crown lease smaller amounts of land to European and creole agricultural workers. Sugar, timber and tobacco production soon influenced the original land-structure, and the pre-Hispanic forest cover began to disappear (some 80-90%), leading to the onset of soil erosion.6 The massive introduction of African slaves as agricultural laborers – in the mid-19th century they represented the majority of the island’s inhabitants (Maluquer 1992: 15) – shaped Cuba’s ethnic and cultural composition and contributed decisively to the wealth accumulated by the sugar aristocracy. When the demand for sugar started to increase (and possibilities for processing and transporting improved through technical innovation) in the late 18th century there was an interest to break up the big haciendas. In Marxist terms, the revolutionizing of the mode of production required also a change in the relations of production. Land started to become private property and a commodity. In the 1820s Spain had lost most of its colonies in the hemisphere during the wave of independence and it was then that it allowed for a reform that converted the usufruct into private property as a concession to creole elites, mostly however excluding the small-scale agricultural workers thus making them landless, dependent and precarious.7

In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution sugar had become the most important commodity to be produced in Cuba, and remained so until the 1990s. Between 1830 and 1912 the amount of land that was dedicated to sugar production increased 22-fold, whereas that dedicated to ‘minor cultivation’ (food crops) increased only 1.5 times (Zeuske 2000: 25). Since sugar production was so profitable it was simply cheaper to import most food items, first from Spain but increasingly, because of geographic proximity, from the United States, a situation that prevailed until 1960. The share of US investment in Cuban agriculture declined from 62% just prior to the Great Depression in 1929 to 27% prior to the revolution (1958) (of a total of 1 billion USD that year). During the same time overall ownership in agriculture shifted from 2/3 US to 2/3 Cuban (Domínguez 1978: 67), but as US interests owned one third of all productive land as well as some of the most modern and productive sugar mills, their influence remained decisive.

The structural endowment (land use, size, property, infrastructure, knowledge etc.) that evolved over time was based on the sugar industry and, to a minor degree, tobacco and cattle. Most of the roads and railroad tracks in Cuba were built to connect sugar-cane estates with nearby ports, not with the evolving urban centers. The consequences of this are still felt today. The large latifundios were relatively inefficient in producing food and were gradually abandoned (leading to idle land and speculation). In contrast, the small, diversified farms (5 to 75 hectares in size) that only covered 25% of total agricultural area produced half of the country’s agricultural output (Agricultural Census of 1946 and 1951, cited in Funes 2012: 6) – a pattern that resembles that of contemporary Cuban agriculture.

However, during the 20th century, thanks to various reform measures and a recovery from the devastating wars of Independence (1868-98), the share of food imports in total imports almost halved between 1919 (37%) and 1958 (21%), and then dropped further to 10% in 1987 (ibid. 30f). Some attempts at agricultural diversification were made, but because of high sugar demand and thus profitability most of it was of little significance. The expansion of the large sugar estates was met with some resistance by the rural workers, mostly peaceful but between 1932-34 also militant action occurred that included land occupations (Grote 2004: 62). After the Great Depression the tariff agreements with the United States made food production in Cuba less profitable, and the country continued to rely on imports.8 During World War II, a law was enacted that made it mandatory for farms larger than 5 hectares to dedicate parts of their land to food production (ibid.). Cuba’s 1940 Constitution proscribed latifundios (large estates) in its article 75 but never enacted any legislation that would make this effective.

After World War II, the economic thinking of state-led development policies and import-substituting industrialization (ISI) within the UN bodies, and Raúl Prebisch as head of the CEPAL (the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America) in particular, gained influence in Cuba as well. In the 1940s and 50s, long-time minister of agriculture Rodolfo Arango and his chief economist, Walter Frielingsdorf, pointed out the necessity of agrarian reform, modernization of agriculture, and state-led initiatives to develop Cuban agriculture (ibid.: 66f). Some legislation such as agrarian schools, and credits for cooperatives through an agrarian bank, was enacted under Batista’s influence but in times of high corruption remained without much effect.9 In 1951, a World Bank report found that 47% of Cuban land was owned by 1.5% of the population (IBRD 1951: 88), most of it dedicated to sugar, followed by cattle pasture. In terms of diversification to meet local food demands, the report stated: “While some progress has been achieved, the situation is still acute” (ibid.: 94). Another major problem was that fewer than half of all farms were owned by those who worked on them; one third of Cuban agricultural land was owned by US-Americans. This is one of the reasons why the rather moderate first Agrarian Reform in May of 1959 became a major source of conflict with US interests. Cuba’s 1940 Constitution (article 75) foresaw the creation of and support for rural cooperatives, even the founding of a cooperative to distribute un- or underused land in each county – but as with many other aspects of social development, the subsequent legislation was weak or nonexistent (Grote 2004: 226).10

Revolutionary changes

It was these conditions that the revolution sought to change with its first agrarian reform in 1959. One of its major objectives was to “facilitate the… extension of new products… that satisfy the nutritional needs of the population” (1959, paragraph 3). The land reform was one of the major political demands of the revolutionary movement and along with the rural development became an important pillar of revolutionary hegemony thereafter. Whereas before the revolution basically all land was in private hands, by 1961 this portion had been reduced to 58%.11 Thus, with the first agrarian reform law some 40% passed into state hands, whereas the second and more radical reform of 1963 limited private landholding to 67 hectares and thus put another 30% into the state’s hands.

In addition to the important goal of meeting food requirements of the population, other tasks were to eradicate poverty in the countryside (through educational, cultural and economic programs), to generate hard currency income through the export of agricultural products, and to obtain raw materials for industry. Despite the explicit goal of diversifying and becoming more autonomous, the dependence in many other matters (energy, defense, industrial development) led the government to a continued emphasis on large-scale mono-cultural production of a few but highly lucrative export-crops as part of what beginning in 1976 would become internationally coordinated five-year plans through the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Together, sugar, tobacco and citrus covered 50% of agricultural land (Funes 2012: 7). Although the government did encourage the creation of cooperatives and especially the pooling of land and labor through the Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) this was often carried out with a top-down approach where former landless workers were encouraged to form a cooperative.12

Cuba faced two other major problems in its food production. The first was a labor shortage, which in pre-revolutionary times had led to the massive employment of African slaves, Chinese contract/debt workers, and finally Caribbean migrants in the 1920s with wage-labor conditions accompanied by seasonal unemployment and misery. This labor shortage was exacerbated after the revolution as increased educational and other opportunities drew people off the land. The second problem was low productivity. Besides its year-round rural workforce, Cuba relied in times of harvest on volunteers, mobilizations, and forced labor of different kinds (students, military and prison labor), which tended to be less skilled, motivated and productive yet came at high transport and provision costs (Pérez 1994: 207) but were part of a political and educational agenda to overcome rural-urban and mental-manual divisions.

In order to increase productivity, the revolutionary government opted for input-intensive, mechanized monocultures. In fact, it became one of the most mechanized agricultures in the world, highly dependent on fertilizers, agro-chemicals and machinery. Cuba was “a world-class case of modernization and of the Green Revolution,” having the most tractors per person and, for a short period, the second highest grain-yield in Latin America (Machín 2010: 165). It made heavy use of chemical inputs and pesticides, which in the long run exhausted the soil and decreased yields (rice for example decreased from its peak in 1980 by almost 20% in ten years – ibid.).13 Between 50% and 80% of these inputs were imported from socialist countries (ibid.). However, these choices came at enormous cost: one fourth of all investments made by the Cuban government between 1959 and 1988 went into agriculture, even though the growth of agricultural production constantly lagged behind that of the economy as a whole, declining considerably in the 1980s when the peak of soil productivity had been passed (Machín 2010: 40f). Plant plagues resulting from monoculture had heavy costs.14

Cooperatives as a ‘superior form of socialism’

In 1975 during the first party congress an effort was made to move the remaining private peasants into collective agriculture, abandoning their small-scale production in favor of large-scale, mechanized projects that would be state-coordinated and would represent a “superior form of production” (PCC 1975). The Communist party believed that individually owned small plots would hinder mechanization and the large-scale irrigation projects needed for monoculture production. Small-holders would have two options: either to sell their land to the state and join the large-scale state farms (granjas estatales), thereby enjoying advantages of having easier access to their infrastructure (daycare facilities, schools, policlinics etc.), or pool land and labor and be part of a coordinated national production scheme with better systems of irrigation, fertilization etc. These would result in the so-called agricultural production cooperatives (CPA). However, the communist policy explicitly recognized the right of the peasants to keep working their land individually based on the assumption that eventually they would gain consciousness, and be willing to continue producing for the national economy and enjoy some of the benefits of the larger state-led production units. To those who opted to retain their private property the state would give material and technical assistance.

Most private peasants had become members of the small farmers association ANAP (founded in 1961), which represented them politically, provided assistance etc., and many had joined the Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS) where they would be integrated into the national production and marketing scheme through the state marketing agency Acopio.15 Whereas in the CPA cooperatives land is owned and worked collectively, in the CCS cooperatives, credits, work tools, seeds, etc. are organized collectively but land is owned and worked individually. By mid-1963 there were about 500 CCSs with about 50,000 members and half a million hectares. In 1998 their number had grown to almost 3000 cooperatives with some 160,000 members and almost one million hectares (Alvarez 2004a: 7). In addition to these cooperative-affiliated peasants, there remained about 200,000 individual farmers after the second agrarian reform in 1963 who would sell their products only to the state and would receive inputs (such as seeds) from it. In 1993, when the new reform process started they controlled about 10% of the agricultural land (ibid.).

The forced end of centralized state-socialist agriculture

When the European socialist states and their trade with Cuba collapsed (trade went down by 80%; GDP fell by 35% after 1990) and as the US embargo/blockade intensified in the 1990s, Cuba experienced conditions of scarcity and insecurity comparable to those of wartime. It had to rethink its entire agricultural system and as a result returned to traditional agriculture and less input-intensive forms of production. While 80% of fertilizers and pesticides had become unavailable, food imports and the capacity to pay for them had also fallen. This had serious consequences for the production of export crops, which in turn dramatically reduced government revenues. Foreign purchase capacity had decreased by 80%, from $8.1 billion in 1989 to $1.7 billion in 1993. In that year $440 million had to be spent for basic foods alone (Funes 2012: 8). The ‘Special Period’ had begun. Serious food shortages began to occur, calorie-intake went down almost to half of the FAO-recommended average, and diseases reappeared. In this situation, and enticed by the Cuban Adjustment Act in August 1994, some 30,000 Cubans left the island on self-made rafts. Minister of Defense Raúl Castro declared: “Today, the principal political, military and ideological task for all revolutionary Cubans is… to guarantee food for the people” (Granma, 4.8.1994). In a way this can be considered the first declaration that the food supply was an issue of national security.

Since it was believed that smaller units of production could more easily adapt to changes and experimentation, the large-scale state farms were broken up and subdivided. In 1989, on the eve of the ‘Special Period’, 78% of arable land was in state hands, 10% in agricultural production cooperatives, and 12% in individual farms. This pattern would be reversed in the following years.

Under the adverse conditions of the ‘Special Period’ a new form of regulation of agriculture evolved that was a reaction both to ongoing practices and to insights from studies. Several important and little-known experimental projects were begun.16 In late 1990 as part of the National Food Program, some 150,000 residents of Havana participated in nearby agricultural projects, designed to motivate them to permanently live and work in the countryside (Pérez 1994). A guaranteed salary, better and more diverse meals than in the city, and housing were part of the incentives. Contrary to the still widespread assumption that socialist Cuba only knows standardized salaries, new forms of payment (geared to productivity and output) were introduced already in 1991, though their application and results varied (often due to the very unstable and short-term urban labor force). Between 1992 and 1993 all state farms were divided into smaller units of production (basic production units, UPB), then further subdivided, making small work teams directly responsible for each unit. However, while more autonomy was granted to the managers, a detailed case study, based on interviews and surveys of different farms in various provinces of Cuba, found that the “decentralization of management did not go hand in hand with greater worker participation” (ibid.: 204). Other studies showed that the lack of representation and participation contributed to increased absenteeism and lower productivity.17

Cooperatives and Decentralization

In September 1993 the Council of Ministers allowed for the creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UPBC) where collectives of workers were to be leased (rent-free) state farm lands in long-term usufruct and given relative autonomy over their management, receiving credits and means of production from the state (Law 142). It also allowed small parcels to be used by individuals for their own consumption. This was the beginning of the end of the directly state-administered agricultural model. Whereas in 1990 the state still directly administered 78% of all agricultural land in use, ten years later this was reduced to one third (ONE 2010). This process of change is thus also called the “Silent Third Agrarian Reform,” because without being named or declared as such, it fundamentally reversed the ownership-structure (Funes 2012: 10). It is interesting to observe that the wording of the reforms at the time suggested temporal limitations: The creation of UPBCs was justified by the constitutional right that the state may “exceptionally” transfer “socialist state property of all the people” to natural and juridical persons (ibid.). Decree-Law 142 (September 1993) declared its purpose as part of the work in the Special Period “to make agriculture… more efficient… and to motivate [producers] to deliver their surplus production.”

However, at that time the production of these cooperatives beyond subsistence could only be sold to the state marketing agency (acopio), with which they had to sign contracts. Whereas individual peasants and members of other cooperatives would be part of the small farmers association (ANAP), UBPC members would remain part of the agricultural union. They would be allowed to vote on their own management and on the admission of new cooperative members.18 One major initial restriction, however, was not being able to change the usage of land (mostly sugar cane).

In addition to this development and in a reversal of earlier policies, small parcels of land would now be leased for individual subsistence (initially limited to 0.15 hectares). This often required a bureaucratic process which is why unauthorized land-occupation took place (Pérez 1994: 212). Already in the 1990s some 80,000 farms were given in usufruct to individuals and cooperatives. In addition some 383,000 urban farms, covering 50,000 hectares of land have been created since. Together they now supply 70% of all fresh vegetables consumed in cities such as Havana (Altieri 2012: 1). Similarly, a grassroots initiative aimed at self-provisioning of rice (a basic food item), called arroz popular, gained influence. By 1997, some 75,000 independent producers harvested 140,000 tons of rice whereas the state Union of Rice Enterprises only produced 10% more despite costly inputs (Granma 1998, cited in Funes 2012: 14).

In 2000, towards the end of the first cycle of reforms of the 1990s, economist Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva concluded that the results of the transformations could be evaluated “as positive” (2000: 101), despite slow evolution and remaining problems especially in the duality of operating systems (state and market). He mentions among some of the positive changes: reduction of loss-subsidies, growth of an important part of agricultural production (vegetables +42%, tobacco +22%, beans +16%. Ibid.: 96), better usage of soils, change in administration and forms of salaries, restructuring and downscaling of the units of agricultural production, and democratization of the production process (ibid.: 101).

Cuba’s current changes

When in 2002 the strategic decision was taken to dismantle half of Cuba’s sugar mills, much of the associated land became idle. Thus the state had some 3.5 million hectares of land in its possession that ceased to be used. Methods of distributing this land to people willing to work on it and produce food were developed. That same year, a new agricultural bill was passed that strengthened the role of the CCS – that had previously been insufficiently regulated by Law 36 (from 1982). The new law (95/2002) defined the increased distributions of profits and regulated the amount of products that can be sold in private markets and the amount owed to the state.19 By 2006 the peasant sector while only covering 25% of agricultural land, produced over 65% of the country’s food.

It is in this context of newly available land and the continued need to replace food imports, and in light of evidence that small-scale non-state production is relatively more efficient, that the much-referred-to Law 259 was promulgated in 2008. In effect it is taking the 1993 land reform a step further. While the first step was to decentralize and create new cooperatives with (limited) autonomy out of former state-farms, now the land would be given primarily to individuals. Yet, through credit policies and also by increasing the time-span that cooperatives may hold usufruct, the law tries to encourage the creation of cooperatives. Since then, as mentioned before, half of the unused agricultural land has been made available to some 160,000 persons.

Nationwide there are now some 20% women among the agricultural workforce, which is about half the world average (43%), according to FAO statistics (IPS, 14.11.2011). Almost half of those who had recently been granted land are new to agricultural work (Juventud Rebelde, 10.11.2011). Thus besides credits a process of guidance and technical assistance will be necessary to familiarize them with agricultural techniques.

The Cuban banks have meanwhile extended their program of microcredits to small farmers. Even though no exact numbers have been given, Ileana Estévez, president of the Cuban Bank for Credit and Commerce (BANDEC) with 203 branches in the country, confirmed that “several million pesos” have been distributed since the renewal of the program in 2009. During the same period, more than 15,000 loans have been given, and the number of loans solicited has increased by more than 80% (ibid.). Interest rates are fixed between 3-5% depending on the duration and purpose of the credit. According to Estévez, most applications were given after a visit to the farm and fulfillment of legal requirements. Usually the expected harvest serves as a security and only less than one percent did not fulfill their legal obligations (ibid.).20

Since the beginning of land reforms in the 1990s, there are now three sectors of agricultural production, according to their forms of property and administration: 1) the state sector, 2) the non-state sector (including both collective and individual production), and 3) the mixed sector with joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign capital. The state sector includes21 the traditional state farms, farms run by state institutions such as the armed forces, the ministry of interior etc., and the self-provisioning farms of public institutions. Collective production comprises the aforementioned UBPC and the CPA. Individual production can be in the form of CCS cooperatives, individual farmers with private property (from before the revolution), and now increasingly, individual farmers in usufruct.

Foreign Investment in Cuba had already been legalized in 1982 (Law 52), in the context of an increasing foreign debt and problems in obtaining credits. The first joint venture though was only established in 1988. Legalization was reiterated in the constitutional changes of 1992. However, only in 1995 (Law 77) were explicit guarantees extended to foreign investors, in a desperate bid to attract foreign capital in times of the post-Soviet crisis and intensified US embargo. Ten years later there were some 500 foreign associations conducting business in Cuba (Alvarez 2004: 114). There is conflicting and contradictory information as to how many are involved in agriculture; numbers range between 10 and 50. The biggest investments, besides sugar derivatives (ca. $300 million annually), are in tobacco (Spain and Brazil, ca. $40 million), and citrus (Israel, $22 million) (ibid., 118-27).

Besides foreign large-scale agricultural investment there is also individual and state-financed support from abroad for individual farms in Cuba. Cubans living in other countries, mostly the US, facilitate through their remittances investment in new and existing agricultural farms. In 1997 an ‘independent farmers’ alliance’ was founded in Granma Province that claimed to support those who try to produce and sell outside the official channels. A year later a support network was founded in Florida that in April 1999 received a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. In 2003 there were about 19 farms that belonged to the alliance, with sizes varying between 10 and 50 hectares and with similar numbers of members in each cooperative (Alvarez 2004: 197).

Whereas for the time period 2005-10, the growth rate for most crops of the state sector was in fact negative (except rice), in the non-state sector the results were more mixed and positive: plantain, rice, and papaya increased, and milk production increased by almost one third, as did the number of cows and pigs raised in non-state farms (ONE 2010). The limited available data suggest that results are much more differentiated, but few analysts bother to look into the details.22 In the first Trimester of 2011, production of agricultural goods increased by 14% (CEPAL 2011: 4), which according to CEPAL is primarily driven by the non-state sector and the government’s decision to pay higher prices in their contracts.

Aside from its impact on soil, environment and human beings, the large-scale mono-crop, mechanized agriculture is also more vulnerable to natural disasters. So when in 2008 hurricanes devastated the island, surveys in the Provinces of Las Tunas and Holguín showed that the losses of smaller and more diversified farms were only 50% compared to 90-100% on monoculture farms (Funes 2012: 6).

Insufficiencies, critiques and further reforms

The lack of a “sense of ownership” for the new agricultural workers is often criticized by outside analysts and also by Cuban economists. Two other issues of concern are limitations of land-size and time that the land will be given in usufruct. As long as the land that is currently being distributed by the state will only be in usufruct, investments made will be minimal, says agricultural economist Armando Nova (2012: 82f). Often, the 10-year usufruct, despite the possibility of renewal, has been rejected as insufficient. As a response to this critique it was recently decided to extend the duration for the usufruct and also to increase the maximum amount of land that can be held by one entity.23

In addition, more attention should be given to infrastructural developments, making it possible both for agricultural workers to live on or near the farms (repopulation of the countryside) and also to improve storage, processing and transport facilities. Such improvement of production conditions needs to be matched in the sphere of trade. Economist Omar Pérez Villanueva had already identified the lack of transport cooperatives, during the first phase of agrarian reforms in the 1990s, as a “major insufficiency.” According to him, “the socialization of production within small units … should be followed by a similar process in the commercial sphere for the additional agricultural production” that goes beyond what has to be delivered to the state agencies (2000: 93). The new party guidelines foresee the creation of ‘second degree’ cooperatives (cooperatives of second degree, guideline #29). These are supposed to carry out “complementary activities” such as “sale and purchase” (compra y venta) in order to “achieve a higher efficiency.” Their commercial partners will be the first-degree producing cooperatives. The new law on cooperatives that Vice-Minister Murillo announced is expected to regulate these activities in detail.

The new cooperatives in Cuba

Cuba’s sixth party congress (April 2011) highlighted the importance of cooperatives in its struggle to advance “economic development” and “the quality of life of its population” (PCC 2011: 5). “Socialist property of the entire people over the fundamental means of production” would continue to be fundamental. However, in addition it recognizes foreign investment, cooperatives, and small farmworkers, among others (ibid) as forms of ownership and production. Cooperatives of ‘first degree’ – “with the objective to produce and offer useful services to society” – are said to be created “in different sectors” where they can have commercial ties with state and non-state entities (#27) and sell their products and services freely once they have fulfilled their “obligations to the state.” Future juridical norms are supposed to prevent the sale or subordination of the cooperatives (25) as well as regulate the sharing of revenues among their members (28). Cooperatives of a ‘second degree’ are composed of first-degree cooperatives in order to “add value to the services and products” or carry out sales (29). This is expected to help, improve, or even replace the much-criticized state-run acopio (commercialization) system.

Legislation to regulate these new forms of cooperatives and extend them for the first time into economic activities beyond agriculture is reported to be in discussion and preparation (IPS 12.7.2012), but no official information on the details is given yet.24 At a recent conference on Agrarian Law in Havana, several legal specialists who work as advisers for cooperatives or governmental agencies involved in issues of commerce discussed shortcomings of the current legal framework.25 They especially emphasized the outdated and inflexible contracts that limit cooperatives in their diversity and in their flexibility to change from certain products to others, according to changing conditions (climatic, seeds, plagues, etc.).26 My impression was that whereas in many other countries the founding of a cooperative is often associated with a political movement and strong political consciousness, in Cuba it seems to be born more out of practical necessity and pragmatic considerations, despite the afore-described experience in agricultural cooperation.27 The new non-state sector and, within it, the cooperatives are also seen as a sector which will potentially absorb parts of the projected 1.8 million state employees who are in the process of being reallocated.

However, despite some important exceptions, there is thus far not a widespread public debate on the political significance that a renewed, expanded and more autonomous form of cooperativism might have for sustainable development. Even though cooperatives in Cuba are defined as a form of socialist property, the party-guidelines refer to them only in economic and legal terms, and there is little reference to methods of enhancing participation, local decision-making, and other forms of socialist renewal. However, in legal and institutional terms, sociologist’s Boaventura Sousa-Santos’s affirmation that “[I]n this situation there is no encouragement for the development of the cooperative and communitarian economic and social relations that are so promising” (2009: 48) no longer holds true given the recent developments. As an ‘experimental state’ Cuba does now recognize and encourage different forms of ownership, including cooperatives.

Another important theme of debate in Cuba is the exchange of experiences in different forms of cooperatives in other Latin American countries that takes place at conferences, workshops and also in various publications.28 Several of the Latin American participants at the Havana conference emphasized the contradictory character of their cooperatives within a neoliberal market economy where they are increasingly forced to prioritize profit-mechanisms over more social, ecological and political goals.29 Reflections on the more fundamental values and objectives of a cooperative in a Marxist sense, that is, as an “associated mode of production” (MEW 25: 456) in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Manifesto, MEW 4: 482), remain rare. Marx and Engels’ reflections on these issues are complex and multidimensional: while they do emphasize the cooperative (genossenschaftliche) mode of production as part of a post-capitalist society, they at the same time foresaw that this formation will still be characterized “in its economic, moral, mental state” by the capitalist society out of which it emerged (Critique of the Gotha Programme, MEW 19: 19f). The contribution of cooperatives to a fundamental transformation of social relations will be limited as long as they remain either isolated from broader political changes or protected by and thus dependent on the (bourgeois) state or its institutions (MEW 16: 195f). Under these conditions, they will be forced to assimilate the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation in their external relations even if in their internal organization they might have superseded the basic contradiction of capital and labor (Capital III, MEW 25: 456).30

In Cuba, the fundamental means of production are still in the hands of the state, and – according to the party guidelines as well as the constitution – will remain so. However, as Raúl Castro self-critically affirmed in a speech, these principles “have been treated as absolute” since the beginning of the revolution and are currently being reversed and diversified (Raul Castro, 18.12.2010). As Sousa Santos put it, “a socialist society is not socialist because all its social and economic relations are socialist but because the latter determine how all other relations in society operate” (Sousa Santos 2009: 48). In this sense, Lenin had highlighted the enormous strategic importance of cooperatives for a society that would differ from capitalism. The conditions under which Lenin implemented his New Economic Policy can be compared to those of Cuba’s Special Period (Schultz 2008: 403). In response to hardship and to scarcity of financial resources and technology, and in order to reanimate the economy, the state retreated to ‘the commanding heights’ and tried to “build communism with non-communist hands” (LW 33: 278), giving importance to the principle of free enterprise and trade and allowing for foreign investment. In defending this approach, Lenin also warned against underrating cooperatives as a means of organizing production that overcomes the private-individualist form and because it is “the simplest, easiest and most acceptable to the peasant” (On Cooperatives, 1923). He recommended that a number of “economic, banking and financial privileges” be granted to the cooperatives. Besides reorganizing the state and adapting it to the new situation, he argued that a form of ‘cultural revolution’ that involves educational and material aspects would also be necessary (ibid.).

In today’s Cuba, the recent debates, the teaching of cooperatives in university and school courses,31 as well as the media coverage of the newly emerging cooperative development, helped by the credit program and technical guidance to this sector, can be seen as a step to raise consciousness and create conditions for the development of cooperatives. A dialogue with cooperativistas from other countries, on their experiences, achievements, contradictions and aspirations will be helpful for the renewal of Cuba’s social and economic relations and to promote a sustainable development where the satisfaction of the basic material and cultural needs, including food sovereignty, becomes a reality – one that might also inspire others.


Altieri, Miguel A., 2012. “The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture,” Monthly Review Vol. 63, No. 8 (January): 23-33.

Alvarez, José. 2004. Cuba’s Agricultural Sector. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Alvarez, José. 2004a. “Transformations in Cuba’s Agriculture after 1959.” EDIS document FE481, a publication of the Department of Food and Resource Economics, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, UF/IFAS, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Blum, William. 1995. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, 2nd ed. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

Deere, Carmen Diana. 1992. Socialism on One Island? Cuba’s National Food Program and Its Prospects for Food Security, Working Paper Series 124, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.

Delgado Díaz, Carlos Jesús. 2012. “Elocuencia del silencio. ¿Qué nos enseña el debate sobre los cultivos transgénicos?” Temas no. 69 (Jan.-March): 56-64.

Domínguez, Jorge I. 1978. Cuba: Order and Revolution.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Figueroa Albelo, Victor et. al. 2005. El modelo cooperativo campesino en Cuba. Havana: Editorial Politica.

Funes Monzote, Fernando. 2012. Towards Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba, Manuscript. Universidad de Salamanca

Funes Monzote, Fernando, and Edudardo Freyre Roach. 2009. Transgénicos. Qué se gana? Que se pierde? Textos para un debate en Cuba, Havana: Publicaciones Acuario Centro Felix Varela.

Funes Monzote, Reinaldo, 2008. From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Grote, Bettina. 2004. Zwischen Heldenkult und Marginalisierung: Kleinbauern und Genossenschaften in Kuba 1940-1963. Norderstedt: Books on Demand.

IBRD. 1951. Report on Cuba. Findings and recommendations of an economic and technical mission organized by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in collaboration with the government of Cuba in 1950, Baltimore: IBRD.

LW. various. Lenin Werke (Collected Works), various years and volumes, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Machín Sosa, Braulio, et al. 2010. Revolución agroecológica: el movimiento de campesino a campesino de la ANAP en Cuba. Cuando el campesino ve, hace fe. Havana: ANAP and La Vía Campesina.

Maluquer de Motes, Jordi.  1992. Nacion e inmigración, los españoles en Cuba (siglos XIX y XX). Oviedo: Ediciones Jucar.

MEW. various. Marx Engels Werke (Collected Works), Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Nova González, Armando. 2012. “Cuban Agriculture Reforms after 2007,” in Jorge I. Domínguez et. al. (eds.) Cuban Economic and Social Development: Policy Reforms and Challenges in the 21st Century. Cambridge, Mass.: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies: 75-106.

ONE. 2010. Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Anuario Anual, Havana,

PCC. 2011. VI. Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. Linieamientos de la Política Económico y Social del Partido. Aprobado el 18 de Abril de 2011. Havana.

Pérez, Niurka et. al. 1994. “The View from Below: Cuban Agriculture in the ‘Special Period in Peacetime,’” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (January): 194-234.

Pérez Villanueva, Omar Everleny. 2000. “La reestructuración de la economía cubana. El proceso en la agricultura,” in: Hans-Jürgen Burchardt (ed.), La última reforma agraria del siglo. Caracas: Nueva Sociedad: 71-105.

Roman, Peter. 2005. “The Lawmaking Process in Cuba: Debating the Bill on Agricultural Cooperatives,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol.19. No. 2 (July):

Schultz, Rainer. 2008. “Kubas Neue Ökonomische Politik” (Cuba’s New Economic Policy), Das Argument 276: 403-13.

Vieta, Marcelo. 2012. “Cuba’s Coming Co-operative Economy? Reflections from two recent field trips,” The Bullet. Socialist Project. E-Bulletin No. 667, July 18.

Zeuske, Max. 2000. “Notas retrospectivas sobre la sociedad agraria cubana en los siglos XIX y XX”, in Hans-Jürgen Burchardt (ed.) La última reforma agraria del siglo, Carácas: Nueva Sociedad: 23-33.


1. For an overview of the development of GM production in Cuba and the debate on it, see Funes & Freyre 2009 and Temas 2012.

2. The largest share of these food imports ($0.7 billion) came from the United States, turning it that year into the principal provider of food for the socialist state. But partly because these exceptional and highly regulated imports from the US (imports from Cuba are still illegal) face several obstacles (among others, payment in cash and in advance, no previous inspection of quality etc.) and are permitted only since 2000 on a fragile political basis (The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act) and thus subject to political change, the Cuban government subsequently decided to diversify the trading partners. Ironically, as Jorge Mario Sánchez has pointed out and contrary to what the Cuban government expected, those US-agribusinesses that obtained an OFAC-license to trade with Cuba on a non-competitive and guaranteed basis have less incentive to lobby for a lifting of the embargo sanctions (Temas 62-63 (2010): 97).

3. Law 259 of July 2008 allows for individuals (personas naturales) a usufruct of 10 years and 25 years for cooperatives (personas jurídicas), both with the option to be extended by the same time (art. 2).

4. It argued “[Cubans] bragged about their peasant cooperatives, their biopesticides and organic fertilizers…. The organic success was a lie, a great, gaudy, Communist-style Big Lie of the type that dictators behind the Iron Curtain routinely used throughout the Cold War to hornswoggle the Free World.”

5. Different from this is the percentage of food purchases from abroad in relation to total imports. This number is even lower. But these numbers are often conflated to prove the unviability of the Cuban agricultural model.

6. Plants and weeds introduced by Spaniards that were exogenous to the island also led to certain plagues and unintended negative consequences. For an excellent study of Cuba’s environmental history, see Funes Monzote 2008.

7. This is one of the important differences from the two other scenarios of socialist transition to which that of Cuba is often compared: China and Vietnam both share rich endogenous and millennia-long farming traditions. In different waves of emigration from Spain however, tens of thousands of Spaniards settled on the island, not few of them to become agricultural workers, with or without own parcels of land.

8. The ‘Reciprocity Treaty’ of 1934 that granted tariff reductions on 426 items (on the US side 45 products), along with the ‘Jones-Castigan Sugar Act’ “institutionalized Cuba’s economic openness to the United States and its dependent position” (Domínguez 1978: 60).

9. In 1953 for example, the Plan for the Mechanization of Agriculture (Plan de Mecanización Agrícola General Batista) was launched and delivered ca. 1000 tractors to each of the 126 Cuban counties (municipios). Three years later an ‘Agrarian Rehabilitation’ plan was announced to give 20,000 young people education and employment in rural communities, but very little of it was put into practice (Grote 2004: 69).

10. The bank for agrarian development (BANFAIC) did issue credits to some 5000 small-scale agricultural producers by 1954, but because of nonexistent legal titles, rivalries, and corruption, the impact often remained limited. By the late 1950s there were about 650 cooperatives registered in accordance with the commercial association law (Grote 2004: 241).

11. Depending on the definition of cooperatives into which much of the expropriated land was converted, the percentage of land that was privately owned could be as high as 72% (Alvarez 2004: 35).

12. This approach is also reflected in article 43 of the 1959 Agrarian Reform Law: “The agrarian cooperatives that the INRA organizes on the lands that it disposes of by virtue of his law will be under its direction. It reserves the right to assign administrators to those lands… until they are given more autonomy by law.”

13. The ‘Agrarian Thesis’ of the first Communist Party Congress in 1975 proclaimed proudly: “The ample use of chemicals… is another expression of technical progress in agriculture.… The application of fertilizers has increased six-fold in relation to the capitalist era” (PCC 1975).

14. As a result, in the 1990s, three fourths of agricultural land was declared to be of low or very low productivity (Soil Institute 2001, cited in Machín 2010: 43). Cuban agriculture also suffered from chemical and biological warfare waged by the US. For extensive documentation on this, see Blum 1995: 188f.

15. Only in 1980, with the opening of Free Farmers’ Markets was there a legal alternative for items produced in excess of the contracted quantities. Six years later, 332 such markets had been established countrywide (Alvarez 2004: 144). At that point however they were abandoned again as part of the beginning ‘rectification process’, citing increased corruption, lack of transparent and functioning supply-channels, and unmet goals of state delivery as reasons. They would be reopened in 1994.

16. For a good summary, see Pérez 1994.To counter oil scarcity and the lack of tractors, for example, a program for using oxen was launched that included 100,000 in 1991 alone (ibid.: 214).

17. In a survey of more than 700 cooperative-members in the central province of Las Villas, only 36% felt that they were part of important decision-making and one third considered that this was the cause of lost opportunities to increase production (Figueroa 2005: 243).

18. In practice, the former administrator of the state farms from which they had emerged would usually be proposed for this post by the Ministry of Agriculture, but in many cases this proposal was rejected by the cooperative constituency, taking advantage of their new participatory rights (Pérez 1994: 208).

19. For a well-informed and detailed discussion of the lawmaking process in which there are long consultative phases, see Roman 2005.

20. Interesting details of this practice and its challenges can now also be read in the Cuban press. In its amplified Friday edition, the party’s official daily, Granma, publishes letters, often complaints, by readers and the responses by the affected state institutions. In one recent case, a very critical new peasant from the Province of Matanzas complained about not being able to obtain a credit and blamed Cuban bureaucracy. The bank’s reply however detailed that the initial complaint had been submitted even before the paperwork was given to the bank. In addition, after an onsite visit to his new pig farm, officials discovered several unauthorized constructions. But most importantly, the farmer wanted to use his own house as security for the loan – something the Cuban Constitution does not allow so that no one may be evicted for credit default (Granma, 13.07.2012).

21. For a useful overview, see Alvarez 2004.

22. The problem is that available Cuban statistics are not fine-tuned enough to make more significant observations. The national statistics distinguish only between state and non-state forms of production even though there are huge differences between a large-scale input-dependent cooperative and a small-scale organic farm. The other distinction made is according to different kinds of produce, but without distinguishing between different forms of production.

23. Raúl Castro, in his Parliamentary Speech in August 2012 announced that “based on accumulated experiences” the maximum size of land in usufruct “for those who are linked to state farms, UPBC or CPA” would be extended to 67 hectares (Granma 24.7.2012: 4).

24. Vice-President of the Council of Ministers Marino Murillo confirmed in March 2012 that the new law for cooperatives is close to being made public (IPS, 27.3.2012). But as in other spheres of anticipated change, this involves a complex juridical reform that, according to José Garea Alonso, Vice-President of the Cuban Society of Agrarian Law, would require a reform of the Cuban Constitution, which does not currently recognize cooperatives other than agriculture-based and does not allow for collective ownership of major means of production other than land.

25. For example the presentation of Lic. Juan Suárez, legal advisor of Mixed Crop Firm, “Urge perfeccionar el procedimiento de negociación en las entdidades económicas cubanas del sector agricola.”

26. Congreso Internacional de Derecho Agrario, Havana, 24-26 April 2012 (notes by the author).

27. Other analysts of the Cuban cooperative development share similar impressions: Marcelo Vieta states based on recent interviews with analysts and actors in Cuba: “many Cubans do indeed have experience with agricultural co-ops or urban agricultural co-ops,” but “most of these experiences, I was told, have been, up till now, top-down or party-led” (Vieta 2012).

28. See the edited volume “Cooperativas y Socialismo: una Mirada desde Cuba” (2011), as well as Camila Piñeiro Harnecker’s recent contribution on the role of cooperatives in the new Cuban economic model, published in the journal Temas, See also Canadian agronomists Wendy Holm’s reports and analysis at:

29. Tayde Morale Santos, “Contradicciones sociológico-júridicas entre relaciones cooperativistas y.capitalistas”.

30. As is well known, Marx and Engels never gave prescriptions for future political scenarios. In some of their analysis and correspondence on current developments, however, they emphasized the value of cooperative agricultural production in large-scale farms that would be expropriated in a period of transition, but at the same time they warned against any forms of forced expropriation of people who work their land (MEW 22: 499; 36: 426).

31. A Master’s degree in Cooperativism has been developed at the University of Havana that operates with educational centers from Mexico and Canada. Two-thirds of its students are from rural communities, 40% women (Maritza McCormack Bequer, “La Enseñanza del Derecho Agrario en Cuba”).

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