See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Opinion Advertize Permissions
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Missouri Farmer Visits Cuba

Bill Christison
Havana, Cuba /
Chillicothe, Missouri

Bill Christison
Bill Christison. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
I was delighted to receive an invitation from Agricultural Missions which is an affiliate of the National Council of Churches to join a delegation to tour Cuba. We were to be hosted by the Martin Luther King Center of Havana. The Center had put together a proposed travel and meeting agenda; however, we were without restriction and the delegation chose the itinerary that we most wanted to follow. Our host interpreters and driver were just super.

Most people are aware of the United States restrictions to travel to Cuba. In spite of this restriction we were able to acquire a travel license granted by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The tour delegation members came from virtually all around the world. The fifteen member delegation included religious, business, professionals, teachers and agricultural people. The group was quite compatible and we were richly rewarded through the sharing of prior life experiences and individual dreams for the future.

I believe the best way for me to relate our experiences and impressions of Cuba is to categorize the topics.

The Island of Cuba

Cuba had already been discovered and inhabited long before Columbus arrived there. The known history of some 500 years has seen several countries in possession. The tropical island is a thousand miles long and contains 14 states of which we toured four laying of the west side. The population is some 11 million. The land itself which we saw lacked something to be desired as far as fertility is concerned. The light soil contains a great deal of rocks and sand. There is a great deal of flat land and in certain areas there are small mountains. In mid-November the temperature was perfect. Cuba is blessed with wonderful harbors, beaches, and the ability for people to live on modest incomes.

The Revolution dramatically changed the life style in Cuba and I can easily understand Castro’s fledgling government accepting the USSR’s offers of assistance. It certainly was a blow for the people when Russia pulled out in 1990 when the USSR ceased to exist.

After traveling much around the world, I truly believe Cuba’s present policy on Agriculture is one of the most sustainable systems in the world.

The People

I was truly amazed when I arrived in Cuba that my perceptions about life there were so incorrect. First, I was surprised at the degree of freedom people appear to have. It seems there is complete freedom of religion. There is little evidence of the police state most dictators enforce. The military people I observed were young and intent on facilitating the people much like the police in their daily lives. I say without reservations, I saw the least discrimination between races I have ever observed anywhere. My guess would be there are about equal numbers of blacks and whites. There are many race heritages of people present in Cuba. Most Cubans have a golden brown skin, a result of years of interracial marriage. There are virtually no obese people. Most Cubans are attractive, friendly people.

The corporate model of consumerism, globalization and standardization, along with greed, simply is not part of the lives of the people of Cuba and, yet, the people have advantages I have not seen before. The people get free education from kindergarten thru the university level if they choose. They are also required to serve time in the military. Cuba probably has the most doctors and nurses per capita of any country in the world, and medical aid is free for everyone.

If you are homeless in Cuba, it is because you choose that life style. Everyone in Cuba has access to food.

The disadvantage in Cuba in the past has been a Communist Socialist society (but I believe that is beginning to change), where the state owns everything. It seems that there is full employment, but for your work above and beyond your advantages there is little compensation. But, also, remember the cinema which is popular there cost 4 cents U.S. An ice cream cone is also 4 cents. There is little mechanization, so a large number of people are required to farm even the smallest farm. Being a farmer, I like the idea that those working the land get paid 3 times as much as other employment.

The glitz and glamour of developed countries is not present in Cuba. You seldom see formal or business attire; however, the populace is always presentable and it makes little difference if you are in the cities or the country towns. There are such large numbers of people coming and going, but even in the city, night life closes down early.

The Government and Economy

Even though Cuba is governed by a dictator, the governmental process seemed amazingly democratic, although there is a chain of command. There is a huge number of government owned high rise apartments where workers live scattered in the countryside, as well as the cities.

We toured many urban and rural farming operations. There is an abundance of production of fruits, vegetables and citrus. Pork and beef and commodities like corn and soybeans are in short supply.

One of my interests in Cuba was to visit with the government officials about possible trade relations. I found the officials knowledgeable and interested. They expressed a desire to deal as direct as possible with family farmers of other countries. The Cuban farmers are definitely supported by their government because they have a system whereby individual farmers join cooperatives, which in turn serve as a link between the farmer and the government. So you see, Cuba actually has commune type farms and cooperative type farms where individual farmers run their own operation, borrow money through the co-op. In the event of crop failures they are not foreclosed on, but continue to farm. These farmers, also have the right to pass the same land on to the next generation.

The Cuban government seems to allow three different types of economies. First is the state owned economy which is the socialist model. Second, they allow for something a kin to a Capitalist system for people of more substantial means. Third, there is a black market economy which is used by numerous Cubans. The state economy is the largest economy and that which nations deal with if they deal with Cuba.

The Cuban main stream economy was forced to make a dramatic change when the Russian economy crashed. The only mechanism I saw in Cuba was very old tractors and trucks as well as some implements which Russia had supplied. Today, 85% of Cuban agriculture is powered by human or animal traction. This method of farming requires huge numbers of people but is sustainable. Most production is organic and while Cuban officials condone genetic engineering, I saw no evidence GMOs were being used.

The U.S. imposed embargo has had very negative consequences for the people of Cuba. The Cuban people’s ability to cope is a testament to their fortitude and endurance to survive.

The infrastructure for the most part is in decline. This is not to say there is no new construction, because there is considerable improving being done. The roads and highways can be similar to the U.S. interstate system, and yet they have rural roads that get no maintenance and are little more than a cow’s path.

Transportation for the masses is truly a problem. People congregate at the intersections in search of a ride and most vehicle drivers are required to pick up riders. Most trucks, which normally you would think would be hauling goods and commodities, are actually hauling people. There are wagons pulled by horses full of people on the roads. Bicycles have multiriders (I saw four people on one bicycle). Most motorcycles have side cars. 98% of the vehicles are 30 to 50 years old. Even with all of these transportation handicaps, it seems everyone in Cuba is going somewhere.

Cuba has wide beautiful one way streets in large towns. At the same time in the old parts of the cities, the streets are very narrow and can only be accessed successfully on foot.

There is much culture in Cuba. Art works, music and dance is common place. Much goods are sold on the streets. When in high traffic areas, black market products and services are readily available.

The Future of Cuba

There is little doubt, the nation of Cuba stands at a crossroad. It is easy to sense, the people have a longing to make change. It is a certainly that they want more from life than they presently receive. While the people have a nationalistic attitude and really do not want to leave Cuba, they are simply tired of austere life style. I think they desire a greater range of consumable items in their daily lives. I believe they are searching for more freedom to choose what they put in their bellies, their modes of transproation and entertainment infrastructure. But most of all, they want a much more capitalistic society.

Under present circumstances, it will be very difficult for the Cuban government to deliver these wants. I fear it is near impossible for Cuba to deliver on the wants of the people and yet maintain the key points of their society that are good.

The U.S. blockade of Cuba have been both good and bad for the Cuban people. The very worst thing that could happen to Cuba is for the blockade to be lifted and U.S. corporations turned loose to take over the island and transform it into a Las Vegas vacation destination. This would only help a few Cubans and the masses would be crowded out or, at best, be condemned to generations of servants. The question is, “how do the Cuban people acquire their wants without losing their birthright?”

About the author: Bill Christison is a farmer and president of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

Published in In Motion Magazine - February 23, 2005