This was day 7 of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School (Monday January 13, 2020)
Dinner at the Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant, with guest speaker, Rafael Betancourt
Overview of the Cuban Economy, Cooperatives and Politics
We rearranged the tables in a square, to better hear the speaker, Rafael Betancourt, talking about the Cuban economy, cooperatives and politics. First I’ll write about the talk, then about the restaurant.
The Cuban economy has changed from the export of plantation products (using enslaved people) to tertiary tourism, remittances from ex-pats in the US and training (medical and other). Sand and Sun tourism is waning, Agritourism could be increased. Farmers can earn more money by catering for tourists than from selling crops. “Cuba doesn’t export any food except apples.”
Rafael Betancourt believes it is geographically inevitable that the US and Cuba will come together. Right now we’re at a juncture. Obama’s executive orders were been rolled back by Trump. Cubans prefer the word “blockade” to “embargo” (which implies bilateral actions.) The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 included that US dollars cannot be banked in Cuba. It’s costly for them to keep moving suitcases of US dollars around.
The US and Cuban economies are entangled but limited. Food imports from the US are allowed but have to be paid in cash as soon as the product arrives. [This is different from what we were told about US chicken not leaving the US until it had been paid for in Euros and cleared the European Bank.]. Exports to the US are almost always prevented, except that tourists export rum, cigars, honey, etc.
Rice in the Time of Sugar: The Political Economy of Food in Cuba, a book by Louis A Pérez, asks “How did Cuba’s long-established sugar trade result in the development of an agriculture that benefited consumers abroad at the dire expense of Cubans at home?”
“In this history of Cuba, Louis A. Pérez proposes a new Cuban counterpoint: rice, a staple central to the island’s cuisine, and sugar, which dominated an export economy 150 years in the making. In the dynamic between the two, dependency on food imports—a signal feature of the Cuban economy—was set in place.”
U.S. rice producers resisted Cuban efforts to expand rice production, because they relied on the Cuban market for rice. Cuban sugar growers relied on the U.S. market. U.S. growers prepared to cut the sugar quota to control Cuban rice markets. In the 1950s, when revolutionary tensions in Cuba were strengthening, U.S. rice producers and their allies in Congress clashed with Cuban producers supported by the Batista government. U.S. interests won out, contributing to undermining Batista’s ability to govern. Cuba’s inability to be self-sufficient in rice production continues to this day, but U.S. rice growers have lost the Cuban market. In the face of the U.S. embargo, Cuba buys low quality rice from Vietnam, that does not sell well in Vietnam. They are learning Vietnamese water-conserving rice-growing methods.
- Cuba does not need to import eggs, but they do import chicken feed.
- Food waste from restaurants may be taken home by the workers, or sent to schools and hospitals, or become pig food. There is no State strategy.
- Portion size: there is a scarcity mentality in Cuba, leading to a frugal use of resources.
- Cubans going overseas bring back empty Tropicana juice jugs in their luggage.
- Recycling varies from place to place. The State purchases cans, metal, plastic and paper. They sell the products back to the manufacturing company.
Climate change and resiliency: In the US, food waste accounts for more than 20% of greenhouse gases. Cuba has a strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Cuba didn’t make many of the greenhouse gases, but will be strongly impacted by climate change. The coastal resorts are vulnerable to sea level rise, and suffer badly from hurricanes. They have a big Reforestation Project, adding more trees every year. Cuba is committed to 20% renewable energy sources by 2020. Cuba became the first country in the world to completely phase out incandescent light bulbs.
The top five Cuban products Rafael Betancourt would like to see exported to the US: Cancer vaccine, other pharmaceuticals, high technology software, beer, services. Currently the label “Remittance” covers business transactions.
Academic Exchanges: A US institution would need to partner with a Cuban academic institution. Cuba could help with rice post-harvest equipment and know-how; Milk production (they have a very cheap method of producing 1 liter/day); Cattle feed; Biofuels using sugar bagasse; They could use help with setting up a certifying board and certifying and exporting organic food; They would like to provide their own organic seeds (many Cuban vegetable seeds are imported, but row crop seeds are grown there).
The story of the CUC: The US embargo was designed to push Cuba towards the USSR. Most imports came from the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba experienced an 80% reduction in imports and exports. Remittances from Cubans overseas helped island survival. Tourism grew, and hard currency started coming in, but the banks didn’t touch it. Cubans became allowed to possess hard currency, and a chain of stores opened, selling goods in US$.
The CUC was invented in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to substitute for US$, which people were then not allowed to spend. People converted their dollars into CUCs. Domestic tourism increased, and the CUC stimulated imports and suppressed exports. The exchange rate was about 24 Cuban pesos to 1 CUC. The State promises to honor the value of the peso. The CUC was phased out on January 1, 2021, after that plan being a kind of a secret. The duty-free shop at Havana airport sells goods for US$ or pesos, but not CUCs. We were warned not to take CUCs out of the country, hoping to use them in the future. (US banks and currency exchange bureau don’t deal with Cuban money at all.) The Peso is now officially set at 24 Cuban pesos to 1 US dollar
Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant
We visited the restaurant roof garden, which supplies the restaurant. There were table-top beds of greens, and beehives. We saw it in the dark, so my photos and impressions are murky! I believe they must buy a lot of their ingredients from elsewhere.