History of Cuban Agriculture

The agriculture sector in Cuba has embarked on a long, complex trajectory to get to where it is today. While the periods described below are by no means a comprehensive overview of Cuban agriculture, they are regarded as critical moments, each of which have left its legacy on the state of Cuban agriculture today, including its organization, production, composition, and future prospects.

Pre-1959: The Latifundio Model

Prior to the Cuban Revolution, agriculture in Cuba was largely defined by the division of large expanses of land into estates held by a small concentration of wealthy landowners, known as latifundistas. This model was oriented toward the export of cash crops, especially sugar cane on the plains of the eastern portion of the island, and also dedicated large quantities of land to raising livestock. The system was largely funded by North American capital. Other areas of land were left idle by landowners. Roughly 1.5% of landowners held almost 46% of agricultural land by 1925. A sizable portion of the rural population engaged in sharecropping, in which they would rent land and pay the landowner with part of the produce from their land each year. Although from the 1940s onward farmers in the neighboring United States experienced an agricultural revolution based on the use of fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and mechanization, most Cuban farmers were restricted to a technological kit based on animal traction, organic fertilizers and manual labor.

1959-1963: Land Reform

Land reform was one of the greatest priorities of the Cuban Revolution. The revolutionary government passed two monumental laws that confiscated land first from the large latifundios held by Cuban landowners and American investors, and later confiscated medium-sized land holdings as well. In May 1959, the first Agrarian Reform Law was signed into legislation, which established the upper limit of land area that could be held by an individual as 402 hectares (just under 1000 acres). As a result, almost 40% of arable land passed from the hands of foreign companies and large landholders into the hands of the State, which then distributed these lands primarily to farmers and agricultural workers. The second Agrarian Reform Law was signed in 1963, and established the upper limit of land that could be held by an individual at 67 hectares, passing another 30% of arable land to the State from medium-sized farmers. Both of these reforms were carried out under the pretext of increasing production to feed a growing population, diversifying crop production for greater export revenues, providing raw materials for the domestic food processing industry, and eradicating rural poverty.

1973: Integration into the CMEA (COMECON)

Despite the lofty goals of the two Agrarian Reform Laws, Cuba's agricultural sector soon found itself unable to meet all of the pre-defined agrarian social targets. The State compromised them in order to meet production targets as part of Soviet-style 5-year plans. In 1973, Cuba joined the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), also known as COMECON. This was an economic agreement led by the USSR that incorporated its allies into an economic integration agreement, largely in response to the US-led Marshall Plan. Cuba's involvement in this arrangement allowed for very favorable terms to acquire farm machinery, fuel, and industrial fertilizers. In return, Cuba became a major exporter of agricultural commodities to CMEA countries, primarily in the form of sugar but also in the form of cash crops such as citrus fruits, coffee, and tobacco. More than half of Cuba's arable land became dedicated to the production of export commodities, and Cuba came to depend on CMEA food imports, which accounted for 50% of the Cuban population’s caloric consumption in this period.
The monocropping model that Cuba adopted in this period was notoriously inefficient and environmentally destructive. Pesticides and fertilizers were used copiously, leading to the contamination of ecosystems and waterways. More than a million hectares became degraded due to the salinization of soils, erosion, compaction, and deforestation. This degradation meant that Cuba's reliance on chemical inputs increased further in order to maintain production levels. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s, production of crops and livestock was in decline due to the systemic inefficiencies and the loss of fertility in soils. The Cuban government initiated a Food Program in order to restore agricultural productivity and meet domestic demand domestically, continuing to rely on the favorable terms with which it could acquire inputs from the CMEA.

1993 to 2008: The Special Period

The successive collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc regimes in 1991 abruptly cut off Cuba's agricultural sector from its principal market for commodities as well as its supply of fuel, fertilizer, and machinery. This led to a sharp decline in agricultural production and an economic restructuring policy known as the Special Period.
Without the agrochemical inputs that Cuba depended on in the heyday of the CMEA, state farms involved in monoculture production drastically reduced their output. Small and medium farms displayed more resilience, but had notable decreases in output as well. As a result, per capita caloric consumption fell by 21% amidst a decline in imports and declining production. To combat this alarming trend of food insecurity, the Cuban government initiated a series of reorganizations in the agricultural sector to slow down the impact of this crisis. Many state farms were reorganized into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), which allowed agricultural workers to collectively own the means of production and sell a part the farms' produce, after meeting production quotas set by the state procurement agency, Acopio. However, the impact of this reorganization was limited because the farms were still entirely dependent on the state for inputs, transportation of goods, and extension services, and the price offered by the procurement agency was well below market prices.
In addition to this restructuring, the government also reduced the extent of the Cuban food ration system, thereby broadening the availability of goods available on private markets. It also authorized self-employment in several sectors of the economy, including that of transportation of agricultural commodities to private markets. While the impact of these economic reconfigurations were not as great as they were anticipated to be, they did result in a recovery of economic growth by 1994. Agricultural productivity fell further in 2002, when the Cuban government made the decision to shut down about half of the sugar mills in the country, in order to increase the financial sustainability of the remaining sugar mills. As a result of the calamity that befell the agricultural sector and the unsuccessful attempts of the 1990s and early 2000s to revive productivity, the country became largely dependent on imports of food, despite increases in the production of fruits and vegetables in urban gardens. During this time, it is estimated that imports came to account for about 80% of domestic food consumption.

2007/2008 to Present: Limited Privatization

When Raul Castro assumed the presidency in 2008, he set about enacting major transformations in the structure of the Cuban economy, including in the agricultural sector. These reforms aimed to reduce the country's dependency on foreign imports of foodstuffs, especially cereal crops and animal products. One crucial policy was issued through Decree-Law 259, which allows for the transfer of portions of the 1.5 million hectares of idle State-owned land to be used by cooperatives and private farmers. This is done by way of 10-year renewable leases, which remain in effect regardless of the type of crop produced. Additionally, farmers are compensated for improvements that they make to their farms' infrastructure, facilities, or land. The state procurement agency also incentivized production by raising the prices of certain agricultural commodities in 2007, including milk, meat, rice, vegetables, and root crops. This increase brought prices closer to market values to stimulate production, and allowed farmers to sell their excess produce at roadside kiosks. Under this new model, non-state producers, including cooperatives and private farmers, account for a growing share of Cuba's agricultural output. It is estimated that to date, 60% of Cuba's agricultural output comes from non-state actors that hold 36% of Cuba's agricultural surface.
Written by: Gary Verburg