I had a chance to get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, for a firsthand look at Cuban agriculture on a recent trip with other alumni of the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The five-day trip was enlightening, providing the 28 participants with a better perspective of the state of agriculture in this country 90 miles off Florida’s coast.
My takeaway? Both Cuban and Florida producers will face challenges and opportunities if and when trade resumes between Cuba and the U.S. Florida producers are right to be concerned over resumption of trade. Cuba produces many of the same crops we do in the same growing season. That said, it likely will be years before Cuba has the resources, infrastructure, and systems necessary to be a significant market threat for Florida. In addition, there remains the critical issue of harmful pests and diseases coming into Florida from Cuban products. Much work will need to be done to protect our industry from any more threats than we are already dealing with.
Although we expected to see a poor country, the level of poverty and decaying infrastructure was surprising. Decades of neglect and lack of maintenance on buildings and roads have taken a heavy toll.
Our itinerary included meetings with key Cuban officials and tours of farms and a market. Social scientist Dr. Rafael Hernandez laid the groundwork for the trip with an overview of the history of Cuban agriculture and economics. The economic recovery since the fall of the Soviet Union has been “slow and not enough,” he said. Cuba’s fundamental challenge is that the country can’t produce its own food. Most state farmland now has been leased to cooperatives, he said.
On National Farmer Day, we met with Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero. During a wide-ranging discussion, Rodriguez Rollero conceded the years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc have been difficult. Eighty percent of Cuba’s foreign trade disappeared in 18 months, including animal feed, fertilizer, chemicals, tractors and parts, and oil.
The minister was asked what guarantees the country could give that the produce it would export to the U.S. would be free of pests and plant diseases. He gave no specifics, nor did he outline any plans to establish an inspection program should trade resume. “Pests and diseases go both ways,” he pointed out. “You have serious companies dedicated to that and USDA. We have to keep working on that.”
Rodriguez Rollero said Florida’s and Cuba’s producers should “work together to exchange our experiences … When the blockade is lifted, farmers’ organizations should work together not to be competitors. We have to look for niche markets. We need your help. That’s a future vision we should have.”
He proudly boasted of the country’s tobacco industry. “Cuban cigars don’t cause cancer,” he proclaimed. “They cause envy.”
We spent an interesting evening with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Charge d’Affaires to Cuba, at his grand home discussing the U.S. move toward normalizing relations with the country. He discussed how the lifting of the embargo would play out if it’s passed by Congress. He also listened to and acknowledged the concerns of our group over Cuban competition with Florida producers and invasive pests and diseases that might be introduced to our state from Cuban exports.
The devastation of Cuba’s citrus industry was the focus of our visit with Jose Pinera, Veteran Technical Director of the UBPC del la Empresa Citricos Ceiba, a state-owned company founded decades ago to grow citrus for Havana. Production there has dropped from 500,000 trees to just 200,000 as a result of greening. Still, Pinera was sanguine. “We thought it was the end of the world,” he said, “but we are no longer terrified.”
A father-daughter team led us on a tour of their lush urban farm in Alamar that uses only organic production practices. It produces and sells a variety of vegetables and tropical fruit, from lettuce to bok choy to mangoes. Not a single power tool is used on the farm. Workers still use horses and an ox with carts to move product. The growers discussed challenges, including the Cuban people’s disinterest in eating fresh vegetables and the lack of transportation and refrigeration that would allow them to sell their produce to local hotels for tourists.