Early on Sunday, those of us up for another long drive, left Villa Clara to visit the Che Monument. It was really our first opportunity to see the countryside of Cuba, and this region of the island is quite beautiful with soft green hillsides and rolling land. What struck this Midwest farm boy was the nearly total lack of cultivated land. We learned later in the week that less than 30% of the country’s land is used for farming. Cuba imports about 80% of its food which makes it vulnerable to price increases, changes in food supply and the impacts of natural disasters, i.e., hurricanes.
Most of this situation (if not all) is due to the dependence on Russia and then the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. How Cubans live today in rural Cuba is obvious from just this photo. It is a photo that could have been taken almost anywhere on our two-hour bus ride across the interior.
This hard scrabble existence is made more obvious when one sees how little farm equipment is available, all of it from the days of the Soviet Union. Here and there I would spot a trackor in a field or parked and abandoned beside a farm building.
What land that is being plowed is being done the way most of us saw land cultivated during our Peace Corps tours.
There are bright spots, however. Later in the week, in the suburbs of Havana, we went to see Cuba’s largest urban garden in the housing complex, Alamar. In 2008, Raul Castro allowed private farmers and co-operatives to lease unused land. This ‘decentralized’ decision also meant that farmers could sell directly to consumers. By allowing for ‘urban gardens’ neighborhood collectives could turn vacant lots into farm land. As the head of the Alamar urban garden told us, if this hadn’t happened after the Russian pulled out of Cuba, they would have all starved to death. There are now, according to him, about 2000 such urban gardens in Cuba. Here are few photos of what we saw at one of them.