Commemorating Fidel: Thoughts on Cuba’s Experiment with Organic Agriculture

Cuban leader Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz passed away at the age of 90 on November 25, 2016 in Santiago de Cuba. For the last six decades, Cuba and Castro were almost interchangeable words to the world. His death most certainly has created a void among socialists as well as for all the struggles being waged against imperialism in any corner of the globe. The onus is now on us to fill this void, and for this we need to understand the legacy Castro has left.

Fidel’s close comrade Che Guevara will be remembered for the foreseeable future as a leader of the youth. We will see many more generations of youth sporting t-shirts and caps with the Che emblem. But how will the world remember Fidel after his death? Castro all his life had remained a staunch opponent of any form of individual cult and hero-worship. He took this as a matter of socialist policy and hardly cared whether he would be remembered.

But the fact remains that the working people of the world can hardly afford to forget a revolutionary who till the other day was a living legend – the legend under whose versatile leadership Cuba was able to wade through numerous challenges, succeeding every time. . From the day the Castro-led Cuban revolution dethroned the US crony Batista regime, it has been a relentless struggle and he became a symbol of a living resistance against US domination for the last five decades. It is not surprising to see celebrations in some parts of US on his death, while the world stands up in reverence and love to bid him a final adieu.

Who is Castro and what is his relevance for us and the generations to come? Will he, or should he be remembered as a romantic revolutionary hero? For many people the romantic revolutionary sensibilities are a thing of the past. For them, concepts of revolution are worn out and there is no chance of any rejuvenation. Revolutions, however, have always sprung surprises for such pessimists and will continue to do so. They may or may not come as teleological outcomes of causality. But they do certainly come as people’s responses to oppression and exploitation . That is the source of the optimism revolutionary romantics continue to bear, nurture and work with, and the revolutionary romanticism epitomized by Che and Castro in the 1960s will keep inspiring them in their journey.

Some of us would prefer to remember Castro as one harbinger of ‘socialism with a difference’ or ‘different socialism’. Cuba and Cuban socialism has been different on many counts. Latin American Marxism has always had its own unique characteristics with liberation-theologists and other schools of libertarian socialist thought broadly inspired by Marxism. There, Marxism has always been infused with elements of Bolivarism to various degrees. The not so recent phenomena in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are some examples. And the same was largely true for the Chinese revolution too, if the Soviet experience is taken as the normative one. As a matter of fact, no single socialist practice was built up without questioning/refuting/rejecting elements of previous experience. In fact, this is the lifeline of Marxist movements, which according to Marx himself can’t progress without ruthless criticism of their precursors.

So let us agree that Cuba’s socialism has been different and to have this difference in full view, we should concentrate on the last 25 years of Castro’s struggle which still remains less known, yet very relevant for all socialists and communists.

Cuban socialism is known to the world for its dogged defiance of US conspiracy and aggression. It will be remembered for its internationalist spirit, under Castro’s leadership extending help to the struggling forces the world over, imparting medical as well as military skills. Also it earned awe and respect for exemplary development in the country’s health and education sector despite resource-poor conditions.

However what remained less discussed about Cuba was her dependent economy, which despite having an internal socialist pattern could hardly boast of national self-reliance. Overwhelming support from the socialist block provided the much needed stability in the face of the US embargo, offering currency and commodity access to Cuba. However, this aid also brought with it overarching influence on Cuba’s internal policies. Cuban agriculture is a case in point. Tracking the history of Cuba’s agriculture back 60 years, it will be evident that the export-led, mono-crop based, big farm-dependent agricultural infrastructure, designed by the Spanish invaders and subsequently taken over by US, continued by and large unaltered even under socialist rule, some redistributive land reform notwithstanding. Socialist politic helped Cuba achieve many milestones, such as poverty eradication, phenomenal development in health and education sectors resulting in a highly qualified population, but failed to earn them the much needed food sufficiency and sustainable economy.

As a result, Cuba remained dependent on external support even for basic food products and self-sufficiency infood and attendant questions relating to land (erosion) and environment (degradation) remained a neglected agenda till the early 1980s. It was only in the early 1980s that the national leadership first took a serious look at the emerging issues relating to environmental degradation and the un-sustainability of an import-dependent food strategy. Fortunately they didn’t have to look beyond Cuba and they found the alternative in the country’s existing small scale agricultural sector. The Cuban government immediately began the much-needed switch to this new model of agriculture based on indigenous methods, of which the small farmers are the backbone. Under state stewardship the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) was formed in 1982. It is this initiative that grew into a full-fledged National Food Program in the late 1980s.

However, the real impetus for going all out with the switch was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration of the Socialist Bloc which left Cuba in a precarious situation. Stripped of two key economic elements, the export market for sugar and fossil oil supply, Cuba was either to collapse or to reconstruct itself.

From the 1990s onwards, Cuba trod a very difficult path under the inspiring leadership of Castro.. After two and a half decades of politico-economic mobilization, Cuba has undergone a radical change, the significance of which is no less than the 1958 revolution itself. The changeover was characterized by a total overhaul of the economy, re-building it on completely different lines which depend on human labor-power and its creativity.

A detailed narrative of agricultural change in Cuba during the critical period is available in a book (Organic Revolution: Agricultural Transformation of Cuba since 1990s) by Bharat Mansata. The impressive success story is characterized by Cuba’s refusal of GM seeds and restoring their ‘own seed cultivation’ system, increased bio-fertilizer production, enormously increased number of draught animals (Oxen), increased milk production through indigenous cow farming, completely doing away with pesticides and chemical fertilizers in all forms of agricultural practice and many other changes. And now these efforts stand satisfyingly vindicated because they produce enough not only for consumption, but also for export. Currently people in Cuba consume on average considerably more (469 grams per day per head) than what the FAO recommends as a minimum (300 grams per day per head).

In the process, they have dismantled their sugarcane mono-crop system by nearly 70%, bringing back traditional cropping practices, not dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation with the help of significant land re-distribution, shifting from energy intensive cropping to natural methods.

It is also important to note that Cuba has significantly reduced its dependence on fossil fuels for energy during this period. Cuba has always been known for garnering alternative energy sources such as sugar-cane dependent bio-mass and other sources, which still contributes about a quarter of their energy needs, though there is scope for further development.

There has been a significant drop in the use of energy, which in Cuba is generated from imported petroleum. Support from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez had helped them replenish the oil deficit and Cuba is seeking self-sufficiency on this front also. Statistics shows Cuba’s daily use of crude oil not only remains among the lowest in Latin America, but the curve shows a downward trend over the last two and half decades, while countries like India and China have registered a 3-4-fold increase. In terms of per capita use of petroleum, Cuba ranks among the low level users and the lowest in Latin America.

A study conducted by James Baker III Institute of Public Policy (Rice University) tells us that:

“the most dramatic decline in energy use occurred in the transport sector where use declined from 313 TOE per thousand persons in 1989 to only 73 TOE in 1994. Consumption in the residential/commercial sector declined from 142 TOE to 87 TOE. Finally, consumption in the Industry/Other sector fell from 769 TOE per thousand persons in 1989 to 612 TOE in 1995.” Source:

Whether all this still remains a choice by default or whether it is accepted as design, will be known in the days to come. But reduction in use of petroleum as an energy option has obvious environmental as well as economic benefits which Cuba has already started reaping. More dependence on solar energy, which is being viewed as a very feasible option for Cuba will further reduce dependence on petroleum

Many people, particularly those of the agro-ecological school have welcomed this and other new approaches adopted by Cuba in recent years and are encouraged by a live demonstration of what they had been preaching for decades now. Some of them are however sceptical about whether the process will be carried forward in future or whether with the restoration of Cuba’s own crude oil production and finding some export market for their agricultural commodities they will fall back to the old system. However, despite uncertainties and skepticisms, what remains indisputable is that in the last two and a half decades Cuba has ushered in a paradigm shift in the landscape of its political economy. Whatever has been already achieved in the first phase is impressive and a roll-back would require a political upheaval which seems improbable at this point.

The struggle was difficult but the Cuban people decided to turn the tide on their political enemies, albeit in a different way, by setting examples. During the course of this switch-over, they faced many challenges. Their much improved health system suffered temporarily as did the general health of the people. But they recovered this with exemplary promptness, thanks to their altered focus. Now the Cuban economy is self reliant, sustainable and a true beacon light for those in search of an alternative to Capitalism, which is wasteful, environmentally degrading, energy-inefficient, self-destructive in addition to being exploitative and oppressive.

The Cuban experience of organic revolution under Castro is one great example of practice in the domain of political economy, where ‘moving forward’ in a traditional-modernist sense is not the watch-word. In the words of Dr. Fernando Funes-Aguilar, who was the president of the Cuban Organic Farming Association (Grupo de Agricultura Organica), “We thus began to revive the old traditions . . . of our parents, our grandparents. We started resorting to everything our ancestors had taught us, those same ancestors who never used any chemicals.”

If previously Marxists have not been able to pay enough heed to concerns such as food sufficiency, environmental degradation and turn them into policy issues, it should be considered as naiveté if not abject failure. The cause(s) of such failure may lie in opportunism or in rigidity or both. If environmental degradation, food security, revitalization of traditional agricultural practices and knowledge are needed, that can’t be expected of the capitalists. It is for the socialists to do and I believe there is no contradiction between this and a class analysis

Cubans under Castro never shied away from what was the felt need of the people; faced with the uphill task of survival this readiness is what took them to tread an uncharted path. True this was the only available option, but they made full use of it. In the face of the imperialist challenge, Cuba under Castro’s able leadership has turned into a live demonstration of the way forward.. Perhaps, it was possible because the Cuban people were politically united and took up the mission with political zeal under their revered leader Fidel Castro. It was possible because this was taken up as part of socialist goals, even though it doesn’t quite fit the ‘traditional’ Marxist framework.

The demise of Fidel Castro will definitely be mourned, but we have much to celebrate. Not only did he epitomize for the struggling people of the world a steadfast and inspiring resistance to imperialism, but particularly during the last 25 years, as we have seen, he trod a genuinely alternative pathway vis-a-vis capitalism, both in economics as well as in politics.

Viva Cuba, Viva Fidel!