Cuban farmers' struggle to chart path into 21st century

Agricultural sector suffers from low productivity amid strict state controls and lack of access to modern equipment.

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    Cuban farmer Garcia once had two tractors, but he dismantled one to get parts to fix the other [Lagmi Chavez/Al Jazeera]
    Cuban farmer Garcia once had two tractors, but he dismantled one to get parts to fix the other [Lagmi Chavez/Al Jazeera]

    Artemisa, Cuba - When you're in Cuba, there's a persistent feeling of being transported back in time - and visiting a farm is no different.

    Cecilio Garcia welcomed us on to his farm in Artemisa - about an hour's drive from the capital Havana - with the flourish of a showman and the frustration that comes with being forced to work using antiquated equipment.

    His land produces a tropical fruit basket: guavas, coconuts, bananas and mangoes.

    Makeshift guava paste production system [Lagmi Chavez/Al Jazeera]

    Inside a shed that looks and feels like you're standing in the middle of a barbecue pit, Garcia and a small group of men are helping to feed Cuba's sweet tooth by producing guava paste - the maroon gooey sweetness affectionately referred to as "Cuba's national desert".

    Garcia said he had to invent the equipment he uses to produce bars of guava paste, which he then sells to the government.

    I asked him if he thought the system he devised resembled how people may have made guava paste 50 or 60 years ago.

    "The system is before civilisation, before Columbus discovered Cuba. Everything is difficult about this job. Everything is makeshift here," Garcia said.

    A short distance from the guava paste-making operation is a graveyard for tractor parts.

    Garcia once had two tractors. They were Russian-made and built in the 1970s.

    But Garcia was forced to dismantle one of them to get parts to fix the other.

    And that is one of the struggles Cuban farmers contend with - even if they can afford to buy new equipment, such as a tractor made in the 21st century, they must get permission from the Cuban government.

    That's not an easy task, but it may soon change.

    New era?

    For the first time in more than half a century, an American company is set to launch operations on Cuban soil. A Cuban exile and a partner are planning to build a small tractor factory in the Port of Mariel, about 30 miles outside Havana.

    The goal is to build small tractors costing $10,000 that can be self-serviced, and then sell them to private farmers, beginning next year.

    Garcia welcomed the idea and said that he is ready to buy - though it's still unclear if the Cuban government will put measures into place that make it easier for farmers to buy the tractors.

    Cuba's agricultural sector suffers from low productivity amid strict government controls.

    Investment in equipment and providing loans are among the recommended reforms to help Cuba's farming industry to modernise.

    "For a significant number of years, the agricultural system has needed new capital. A lot of money must be invested for quite a long time," said Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana.

    "You need the land, you need the equipment, you need the seeds, the so-called agricultural extension services. Until they get those at competitive prices, we will not be able to fully exploit our potential in agriculture."

    The frustration of knowing he can't fully tap the potential has firmly taken root on Garcia's farm.

    "Everything is in the hands of the state," he said. "Everything depends on the government, not us."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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