Organic Farms in Cuba

Ignacio at a small organopónico (urban farm) in Cienfuegos

Raised beds of mostly lettuce.  

Sorghum is planted at the ends of vegetable beds to keep bugs away.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its biggest trading partner and also its source of cheap, subsidized oil.  Cuba plummeted into a time of economic crisis and food shortages referred to as the "Special Period."  Imported products like agricultural fertilizers were no longer affordable.  Since oil became prohibitively expensive for Cubans, the nation is considered to have reached "Peak Oil" in the early 1990's.  The Soviet Union's collapse forced Cuba to find solutions to their food and gas shortages across the island.  Once Cuba lacked the resources for chemical-intensive farming, the entire country quickly converted to nearly 100% organic agricultural production.  In a few years, market vegetable gardens were constructed within cities in closer proximity to the country's population eliminating the impossible costs required for transport and refrigeration.  These small urban farms are called organopónicos.  As the rest of the international community faces the prospect of reaching "Peak Oil" in the future, many farmers and environmentalists are looking at Cuba today to see how they endured during the Special Period and how they created one of the highest concentrations of urban organic farms in the world. 

Señor Colina, the jefe of this garden, and one of his workers

Almost all farms I visited used marigolds at the ends of their beds as an organic insect repellent.  The photos above and below are from Vivero Alamar outside Havana.  This farm has received international funding, employed over a hundred farmers and utilized some advanced organic farming techniques, like devices attached to the irrigation hoses to magnetize the water.  Although I had watched a video documentary of this farm before coming to Cuba in which a Mexican volunteer explained that it was enjoyable and easy to pop in and lend a hand, the folks at Vivero Alamar seemed fearful to allow me to spend time onsite with just a tourist visa.  They seem to fear repercussions from the government for hosting tourists while not being sanctioned to do so.  They did ask me if I was a terrorist (though half-joking, I think) and told me I could spend more days there if I obtained a work visa, (which sounded nearly impossible with the necessary time, money and signatures required.)

On one of the few channels available on Cuban television, they sometimes show educational farming programs.  They discussed pertinent organic techniques like intercropping, crop rotation, when to plant seeds, etc. for the casual home gardener or professional farmers.
Bananas at a larger organopónico in Cienfuegos

Friendly farmers in Cienfuegos...

The plant above is a type of oregano.  Oregano was also frequently used as an organic insect repellent on the borders of vegetable beds all around Cuba.

Fields of tobacco in Viñales

Baby pineapple

This garden was interesting.  It's a garden of the local MinInt office.  MinInt is short for Ministerio del Interior, (Interior Ministry), which is basically like Cuba's federal police.  This would be like local branches of the FBI having their own personal organic vegetable gardens!  One evening I strolled by and a guy who was harvesting told me that it was fine to come in take a photo, but it was getting dark.  The next afternoon, I walked by and tried to enter the garden again but a different man sternly told me that I could not enter nor even walk alongside one side of the fence because the garden belonged to the police.  

These farmers were transplanting tomato plants.  While some farmers around Cuba were welcoming, some, like these, were quite suspicious of me and my intentions.  These in particular asked me to leave before I "contaminated" their beds with my non-farm clothes.  

This gentleman cultivates a farm of medicinal plants in Viñales.  He was quite friendly and introduced plants to me that I was not familiar with.

Farmer at an organopónico in Trinidad.  Just outside the city center, there were three small farms all next to each other along the road.

Irrigating lettuce

Another farmer in Trinidad


Lotsa lettuce


Streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

Wandering around Old Havana never gets old.  Early in the morning, a Cubano smokes his cigar.

Immediately outside the clean and renovated areas of Old Havana, dilapidated and gutted-out buildings are common.

Similar in design to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC, El Capitolio in the background is one of Havana's major landmarks.

Boys play soccer in the streets.  I never saw anyone playing baseball, but soccer was played all around Cuba.

A view over Plaza Vieja from the camera obscura tower

A woman on stilts as part of a passing parade...It was striking to me how different Cuba is from other places I've traveled.  Even though it's only about 90 miles from the US mainland, it seems like a whole other world.  Particular striking to me was that I've never been to a country where the citizens earn so little money relative to the rest of the world, yet carry themselves with such dignity and have such access to world-class Theater, Music, Dance, Education and Healthcare.    

In Plaza Vieja

"The Flower of Berlin" bread shop

A kitty roaming the streets

A view of the bay at dawn

In La Plaza de la Catedral a woman wears all white, which signifies that she is a Santeria practitioner.

Pedicab drivers waiting for passengers

At the San Francisco de la Habana Basilica...

In the Plaza de la Catedral...

This is a state-run store where locals can use their ration cards to obtain essential food.  For sale there's sugar, black beans, rice, salt and a few other things that I can't read.  Observe how little is on the shelf!!    There were also stores primarily for tourists that contained more on the shelves, but even those stores had depressingly little available for sale, and almost all they had, except for beer and rum, was imported and surprisingly expensive.  From what I understood, most employed Cubans who work for the state make between $12-$60 per month.  With this salary, most items for sale in the stores were prohibitively expensive for most Cubans.  And since the highest-paid state employees make no more than five times more than the lowest paid employees, Cuba may have less of a wealth disparity problem among its citizens and thus more equality.  However, the wealth gap between Cubans and foreigners is gigantic.  Socially, politically and ideologically, Cuba is thoroughly Communist.  Cuba is certainly not a consumer society though it seemed to me that the Cubans wished to have more consumer goods.  

One social difference I noticed immediately in Cuba was that Cuban society seems to be much more racially integrated than most other countries.  At music venues, clubs, restaurants, bars, there seemed to always be a mix of black, brown and white Cubans.  School kids walking together and groups of men hanging out on corners were of mixed skin colors and this fact was something that struck me initially when I arrived but then became so everyday that I stopped noticing it.  Some might say that since the land and economic reforms following the Revolution stripped away the wealth of the Upper Class and then provided more basic necessities for the Lower Class that there is more social equality in Cuba than other places.  Certainly, the poorest of the poor in Cuba have a higher quality of life (excepting political freedoms) than the poorest of the poor in other Latin American countries. But I wouldn't say that black and whites in Cuba are on completely equal footing as the nicer areas of Havana seemed to be whiter.  And many of the Cubans whose formerly wealthy family members fled to other countries (primarily Miami) are white and so I would bet that the majority of remittances sent to Cubans are sent to white Cubans, thus maintaining a class difference between races.  And although black Cubans do not have to fear being shot by police in the streets a Cuban did tell me that there is a disproportionate amount of blacks in the Cuban prisons.

In some instances, I may paint a rosy picture of Cuba from my experiences, because some aspects of Cuba impressed me.  However, I should point out that there are some sides of Cuban society that are dark and problematic: lack of freedom of expression, no freedom of press, no opportunities for upward mobility and lack of inexpensive access to the internet to name a few.

El Ojo del Ciclón

Many of the streets in Old Havana were torn up as they were updating their gas and electric lines.

In Plaza Vieja...

Statue by Roberto Fabelo