Short History

Before the 1959 revolution, there was one word to describe Cuba: inequality. Only 8 percent of the farmers controlled 70 percent of the land. US interests controlled most of the economy, including most of the large plantations, a controlling interest in the sugar production, the mining industry, oil refineries, electrical utilities, the communications system, and many of the banks.4

The majority of the rural labor force consisted of landless, seasonal workers without schooling, healthcare, electricity, or running water. They earned their living during only three months of the year — at planting time and at harvest. Rural workers were lucky to earn one-quarter of the national income.5

At the time of the revolution, most of the wealthy landowners fled to the United States. Their former holdings were expropriated and given over to the laborers. The Cuban revolution has been followed by three periods of agrarian reform, first in 1959, secondly in 1963, and finally the current land reform of the 1990s.

The first reform limited private land owning to 1,CCC acres. This tripled the number of small farmers and replaced the large plantations with state farms. The second agrarian reform further limited private land ownership to 165 acres per person.6 The land reform of the 1990s is more properly called a controlled privatization. We will discuss it later.

By 1965, state farms controlled 63 percent of the arable land, and over 16C,CCC small farmers owned and worked an additional 2C percent.7 The small farmers joined farmer associations, Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCSs) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPAs), which together controlled 22 percent of the arable land. The CCSs and CPAs are in turn confederated in the National Association of Small Producers (ANAP), which provides training and a number of services to its members and negotiates with the government for prices and credit. ANAP members produce 52 percent of the vegetables grown in Cuba, 67 percent of the corn, and 85 percent of the tobacco.8 Another 2C,CCC small farmers own their land independently of cooperatives. These unaffiliated private farmers own about one percent of the arable land.9

The agrarian reforms succeeded because the government was truly intent on redistributing wealth and creating a more equitable society. Farmers and cooperatives were supported with low-interest credit, stabilized prices, a guaranteed market, technological assistance, transport, and insurance. The government also enacted laws which prevented the reconcentration of land, effectively blocking former plantation owners from slowly buying back their estates. The revolution took back control of Cuba from the US through laws banning foreign ownership of property. Cuba's isolation, in fact, had some positive benefits: it allowed Cubans to realize their social transformation without outside intervention. And finally, the population was educated and provided with decent health care.

By the 1980s, Cuba had surpassed most of Latin America in nutrition, life expectancy, education, and GNP per capita. The literacy rate was an astonishing 96 percent, and 95 percent of the population had access to safe water.10 Cubans achieved a large degree of equity and industrialization through a trade regime that was highly import-dependent. Importing transportation vehicles, machinery, and fuel allowed them to build up their industrial base, which they did in a more equitable manner.

From the time of the revolution to the 1980s, Cuban agriculture became more mechanized than any other Latin American country's. By the end of the 1980s, state-owned sugar plantations covered three times more farmland than did food crops. Sugar and its derivatives made up 75 percent of Cuba's exports, sold almost exclusively to the Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe, and China."

However, because Cuban agriculture was overwhelmingly dedicated to sugar, tobacco, and citrus, the country had to import 60 percent of its food, all from the Soviet bloc. Cuba also imported most of its oil, almost half of its fertilizer, '2 percent of its pesticides, 36 percent of its animal feed for livestock, and most of the fuel used to produce sugar.12 This system of imports and exports allowed Cuba to modernize and raise the standard of living and quality of life for all its residents. However, its dependence on the Soviet Union and the focus on sugar production left the country extremely vulnerable should anything happen to its major trading partner.

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