Like many in the Caribbean Brazilian photojournalist Eduardo Martino has a fascination with Cuba. Last year the London-based Martino made the trip to Havana – after Castro had gone in for treatment and later, out of the Presidency – to document ordinary Cubans attempting to solve food supply shortages and the looming worldwide increase in food prices: Urban farming.
Self-sufficiency is something that has been urged in Jamaica, most recently with Minister of Agriculture Chris Tufton’s infamous cassava remarks. In individualistic Jamaica Tufton was always unlikely to be heeded, but how were communitarian-minded Cubans coping, we asked Martino?
Q. What led you to this story?
I wanted to see and experience Cuba during this historical moment, when substantial changes may be about to take place. I wanted to explore a particular situation that would somehow symbolise how Cubans have been living their lives in recent times, at the same time grasping a little bit of the revolution’s legacy.
So, when a friend of mine came back from Cuba and told me about the urban farming phenomenon in Cuba I felt like going there and checking it out for myself. Especially because I am becoming increasingly interested about the issue of farming in the industrialised world. In Brazil this is a very hot subject, especially with the growth of biofuels internationally, which has been reflecting importantly in the Brazilian rural environment.
Q. How long did you spend in the country?
I only had the chance to spend two weeks in the field for this project. But before arriving in Cuba I did a lot of research and managed to arrange several visits and interviews with Cuban experts on the subject, as well as peasants. There was one family of academics in Havana that helped me a lot over the whole period, which was vital for me to find the important places in such a short visit.
Q. Does your Brazilian upbringing help you empathise with the Cubans?
I certainly felt a huge familiarity, all the time, everywhere I went – from people’s faces, with this typical ethnic combination between Mediterranean and African types, to the music and popular culture. But there was one thing in today’s Cuba that brought back some strong memories from Brazil in the 1980s and the early 90s when we had terrible economical problems with hyperinflation.
Brazil’s currency changed name five times, always accompanied by impacting structural adjustment packages designed to freeze inflation, but it never worked. The dollar was the only safe reference to guide prices, salaries, investments and so this led to our economy being indexed by the dollar.
The richest element in society managed to make profit from overnight investments and those without access to hard currencies became poorer. I recognised in Cuba many similarities in this regard: It’s like two economies going alongside, one for the ‘haves’ and another one for the ‘have-nots’, with the divisive wall being the access to foreign cash. And in both 80s Brazil and today’s Cuba, there’s this terrible feeling of frustration and disempowerment amongst ordinary people.
Q. In your time there were there food shortages? Were there people going hungry?
With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 a dark period in Cuba’s history began, called by Fidel Castro the ‘Special Period’.
For the previous 30 years, Cuba’s sugar and other products had been exported at extremely favourable prices to its communist partners, while the island’s basic inputs for its highly mechanised agriculture – oil, machinery, fertilisers and pesticides – arrived at low prices.
Most of Cuba’s food also came from the Soviet Union and while this commercial relationship was in place, the consequences of the United States-imposed embargo were not so severely felt. But after 1989 the once healthy and educated population became hungry. I talked to many people who described how bad those days were. And that crisis was exactly what triggered the urban farming phenomenon, because since most people in Cuba live in cities and the fields had been ruined by decades of improper cultivation anyway, people had to find a solution to eat.
[At this point in its history Cuba legalised the US dollar and began encouraging tourism and remittances from abroad.]
Two decades later in 2006 Cuba’s urban farming is producing 4.2 million tons of food and employing 354,000 people. It’s also contributed to the establishment of a network of 1,270 points of sale of agricultural products and 932 agricultural markets.
So people are no longer facing starvation, also because tourism has been pumping strong currencies into the Cuban economy. But I was amazed to witness that the majority of Cubans, including some with access to tourism dollars, still rely on the rationed food provided by the state, which is seriously unreliable, with regular shortages of basic elements for a family’s healthy nutrition, such as eggs, milk or rice.
Q. How bad were the rises in food prices and were the Cubans able to check this?
I was in Cuba just before this very recent rise in food prices, so I didn’t have the chance to see how it’s been impacting on their economy. But what I had the opportunity to see was Cuba’s very particular system through which food reaches people’s tables. The model created right at the beginning of the revolution organised food supply to families via a rationed list of basic goods, to be collected all around the country in state-managed corner shops.
Each family has a booklet where monthly quotas are written down. With the Special Period, this system became very critical. Many people still rely on it, going through regular shortages of this or that product, but many are now able to buy vegetables for example from urban farmers directly. Obviously, not everybody can afford them. But since other relatively newly-introduced economic activities like tourism are bringing in money, more people are being able to supplement the rationed food via the free market.
As usual, the black market takes care of everything else that the official sources lack. But it seems to be a general struggle to make ends meet. For those making dollars from tourism, things are much better, as the foreign currency is about 20 times stronger than the local. So not only the products in pesos become dirt cheap for those with dollars in their hands, but the people involved with the dollar economy are able to buy products priced in dollars. However, they also struggle because some products sold in dollars in Cuba are more expensive than in Europe or the US. So what’s happening in Cuba today is obviously an aberration that at some point in the near future will need to be sorted out.
Q. Do urban farmers come from a variety of backgrounds, or is it down to necessity?
I guess now, after the serious threats of the early 90s are gone, people may decide to create an organoponico (hydroponic unit) in some unused plot of land somewhere as a complement for their basic food needs, but it certainly wasn’t the case when it was first put in place, when the need for basic nutrition was the driving force.
Q. Did you sense a strong sense of patriotism amongst the farmers?
Despite all the frequent criticism of the Cuban authorities for neglecting the rural farmers’ during the decades-long obstinate choice of sugarcane as the monocrop – which ruined the fields – the revolution managed to create highly educated generations of scientists. Even during the days when the Cuban agriculture was highly mechanised and employing all sorts of agrochemicals, there were people investing time and energy into research of organic and natural techniques to improve productivity and quality.
So when the crisis kicked in, this knowledge was very precious to equip the urban farmers with the basic skills needed to achieve success, because the urban farming in Cuba employs exclusively organic techniques while chemical inputs are banned. So even if farmers may criticise the wrong decisions from the past, which led to so much hardship, they will be equally proud of their capability to overcome the problems. And many will associate this fact with the Cuban exemplary educational standards, perhaps the revolution’s main achievement.
Q. Did you experience much evidence of change (communism-to-capitalism) while you were there? If so, was it more apparent amongst the young and how did this manifest itself?
The most obvious recent change in how products are traded in Cuba is the adoption of a foreign currency, the convertible dollars, to address the arrival of people with foreign cash, the tourists. When the Cuban authorities chose to open their doors to mass tourism out of pure economical need, they created this parallel economy, which, obviously, failed to be restricted to tourists only and is pretty much everywhere now.
But not everybody has access to the strong currency, creating this unbalanced society I mentioned before. This situation is even more striking when you think that only two decades ago this was a society where social inequality was officially banned.
Q. Lastly, what are you working on currently/next?
I am planning to spend a considerable amount of time in Brazil at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. I am very interested about the Amazon and what’s happening in Brazil as a consequence of the recent boom in biofuels, as well as the high demand for those commodities that Brazil is a leading producer, such as soy or beef. There’s a lot of tension between conflicting parts in Brazil as a consequence of the direction our authorities are choosing to take in terms of the extremely profitable agribusiness. I intend to explore how this reflects to the ordinary people’s daily lives.