Cut off

The water famine in the Centro Habana district of Havana was extreme. When I was there in December, people rushed to fill storage tanks, bowls, buckets,  whatever receptacle was to hand, when the mains supply was turned on, generally around 4pm in the afternoon. The supply was turned off again about 7pm.

Despite the water shortages, the Cuban government is apparently planning to build ten golf courses for the tourists. One golf course uses as much water as a town of 12,000 inhabitants, according to www.tourismconcern.org.uk/golf.html.

The University of Havana suffers from the same privations as most of the rest of the city. The water supply to our campus building was turned off when I was there. This meant that the toilets were closed, although the guardian of the WCs would unlock in response to an urgent plea. Then it was a case of using a pail to scoop some of the remaining water from a barrel, and tipping it down the pan. The flush mechanisms had all been removed, and there was no water for hand washing.

The 88 wide steps leading up to Havana University are a city landmark. Students sit and stroll in pairs and groups on the pleasantly tree-shaded campus. I was there for a week to learn more Spanish, not nearly long enough, of course, but the maximum time I had. My fellow students were of all ages, including pensioners, mainly from northern and western Europe and Japan – and some from the USA.  Our teachers were expert, their classes excellent. They work in difficult conditions, because the university has other shortages besides water.

Books are scarce and many date from before the demise of the Soviet Union. In the pharmacy library, half the floor was up, and the dusty surroundings made me think I had stumbled into Miss Haversham’s hermitage in Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations. An assistant was searching in an old-fashioned card index. There is no internet access on the campus, not a surprise because only Cubans with special authorisation, or with enough money to pay 6 to 10 cuc (£4 to £6.67, the equivalent of a week’s wages) for an hour at an official access point, can use the internet. Even then, the sites visited are monitored. In the university’s classrooms, teachers have a blackboard and chalk but not much else.

I think there are circumstances in which Cuban self-reliance goes too far, and education is one of them. It is a closed world. Outsiders cannot routinely apply for jobs or even work for free in Cuban schools or higher-education institutions, unless they have a place on one of the few tourism-cum-culture three- or four-week volunteer holiday programmes, which are closely monitored. I suppose the government thinks foreigners would spread imperialist propaganda. As a result, young people are not exposed to different points of view, nor challenged to think in different ways. Little by little, this deliberate sequestration threatens to marginalise Cuban scholarship. It’s not only water that is cut off in Cuba. Even if it’s not yet possible fully to restore the water supply, why not allow teachers and students more freedom to open the taps of communication?

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Intimidation in Havana

I saw and heard what looked like a riot, as I walked down Neptuno street in Centro Habana on Saturday December 10th. The commotion was a couple of blocks further on from the turning into the street where I was staying. A large flag had been stretched over the street, and I could see dozens of men and some women yelling and punching the air with their fists. It was intimidating.

I soon learned what was going on. The ‘riot’ was outside the house of Laura Pollán, former leader of the Damas de Blanco, the ladies in white who demonstrate peacefully against political imprisonment and for human rights in Cuba. Laura died aged 63 in Calixto Garcia hospital, behind the university, on October 14th 2011, reportedly of Dengue fever (which is more widespread than foreigners are supposed to know). I have just watched a clandestine amateur video of the accident and emergency unit at Calixto Garcia, on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK3AnxSgdxA) and it does not inspire confidence. Poor Laura.

“Did you see the yellow bus parked in the next street?” one resident asked me. “It brought military personnel, militares, out of uniform in civiles. Their job is to harass the Damas de Blanco.”

Harass them they did, until about three o’clock in the morning. It struck me as similar to the US military’s treatment of General Noriega in Panama in 1989 when they wanted him out of the Vatican Embassy, where he had sought refuge. They played heavy metal music very loudly until the general could stand no more.

The women were meeting in Laura’s home. The military, pretending to be ordinary citizens, were a threatening presence.

Walking about Havana in early December, on two occasions I saw elderly men arrested on the street and bundled into police cars. I don’t know if these were political arrests or not, and I suspect they were probably for vagrancy, but afterwards I read that in Cuba in 2011, according to a tally by CIH Press, there were 3,835 political arrests, 576 of which were in December.

http://babalublog.com/2012/01/political-arrests-in-cuba-rise-256-in-2011/ )

Not surprisingly, many people are afraid to say what they think. These are among the comments that I heard:

  • When there is an unexpected knock at the door, and you are watching a foreign soap opera thanks to an illegal satellite dish, you switch the TV to a Cuban channel before opening the door.
  • Cubans do not often speak in the future tense because they may not have a future.
  • If you leave Cuba and are away for over 11 months, your property is forfeit to the state.
  • A group of 24 Cuban students went to China for four years to learn Chinese. Only six returned. The others stayed in China or travelled to Europe.

I came away feeling sad that the Revolution has failed to usher in  new era of hope and justice, sad that most Cubans have such a struggle just to get through each day, sad that they cannot engage freely with the rest of the world, sad that hurricane damage compounds their problems, sad that out of fear they have to pretend to be living in a successful state. One day I went to see an elderly lady who used to be a teacher at the university. Her work must have been of great value to the state, yet she lived in a dingy room and her bed was a mattress on the floor. Her pension of less than £10 a month did not buy her a nutritious diet. She did not complain.


A Walk on the Pre-Revolutionary Side

It has to be said that almost all the more interesting buildings in Cuba predate the Revolution.

On a fine day in Vedado, I strolled from the Monumento del Maine on the Malecon to the Monumento Vuelo Lam, which is only five blocks from the river Almendares and the suburb of Miramar on the other side. Vedado, smarter than Centro Habana to the east, is an early 20th century district of large houses, which were once for single families but which are now institutions or multi-family homes.

The Monumento a las Victimas del Maine, Vedado, Havana.

The Monumento a la Victimas del Maine (Monument to the Victims of the Maine) is a memorial to the blowing up of the ship USS Maine in Havana’s harbour in 1898, which killed 260 sailors on board. I don’t think anyone revealed who blew up the ship, but the Cubans believe it gave the USA a pretext to enter the war of independence against Spain, at a time when the Spanish troops were pretty much defeated anyway. A plaque approved by Fidel Castro reads, in translation: “To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed by imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of Cuba.” (Cuba, Moon handbook by Christopher  P Baker, 5th edition 2010, p.84)

From the monument at the seaward end of Calle 17, you can see the Hotel Nacional a little to the east, where La Rampa meets the Malecon. The hotel was built in the late 1920s and opened in 1930. In the 1940s and 50s it was a haunt of  Mafiosi from the United States, including Lucky Luciano. They saw Cuba as a convenient off-shore money-laundering casino.

The vast Hotel Nacional, from the back.

Down Calle 17, between streets M and N, stands the 35-storey Focsa building, constructed of reinforced concrete in the mid-1950s, before the 1959 Revolution.

The 35-storey reinforced concrete Edificio Focsa.

Across one block to Calle 19, and the pale Iglesia (Church) San Juan de Letrán. Parque (Park) Victor Hugo, further down the street, is a grassy square with memorials to the French author of Les Miserables, to the mother of independence figurehead José  Marti, and to the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, RIP 1981.

Back on Calle 17, some of the vast pre-Revolution mansions are protected with elaborate security. The Instituto Cubano de Amistad con losPueblos (Cuban Institute of Friendship between Peoples), at no.301, is a huge 1920s villa, not open to the chance visitor despite its name. The equally palatial Casa (House) de Juan Gelats, at no.351, houses the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, for the Cuban artists and writers who are approved of or tolerated by the government.

The Museo de Artes Decorativas used to be a private mansion.

Down at no.502, the Museo de Artes Decorativas (Museum of Decorative Arts) occupies the mansion of the Count and Countess of Revilla de Camargo, whose guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Before the Revolution, the high society of the day flocked to the palatial home of the Count and Countess de Revilla de Camargo. The mansion is now a museum.

The Count and Countess exited Cuba in 1961, unable to take their possessions with them, and their property was acquired by the Castro government. There is a sumptuous Oriental room, and a manor-house English room among the French antiques.

Past the residence of the British Ambassador, a manicured white mansion with posters for the London Olympics on the railings outside, to Parque Lennon, named for John Lennon. This park has a statue of the assassinated Beatle, complete with spectacles, who have their own custodian. How would the real John Lennon be treated if he were alive in Cuba today? Would he be regarded as counter-revolutionary?

I wandered on to a shady little park between Calles 15 and 13, with a bandstand in the centre, to see the  Monumento Vuelo Lam, a bronze artwork of a flying bird-like human, by Alberto Lescay Merencio. The bronze is named for the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, whose work features humans as a sort of fusion between human and bird.

Statue by Alberto Lescay Merencio in the Parque de Lam, Vedado.

I think I preferred the seated, bowed, post-Revolutionary figure on the grass nearby.

Thinking about the Revolution: art work in the Parque de Lam, Vedado.


Censorship isolates Cubans

The main stories on the Cuban TV newscast I was watching one evening in November were of American police beating up ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protestors, the Syrian government’s struggle against ‘terrorists’ (who in the UK are seen as campaigners for human rights), and the ‘Cuban Five’ spies (heroes in Cuba) sentenced in the USA in June 2001 to imprisonment terms from 15 years to two life terms. Protests in Egypt at the slow pace of reform since the ousting of President Mubarak, the greed of Europeans buying wood from Amazon forests, and Cuba’s tomato growing programme to try and reduce imports, were also prominent.

Cuba has parallel information streams, the formal state-controlled media and Radio Bemba*, news and gossip passed person to person. Through this channel, people get to know just how much ‘news’ is omitted from state TV and newspapers. People in Havana in 2011 knew about the extent of mosquito-spread and dangerous Dengue fever,  the scarcity of equipment and medicines in hospitals, the harrassment and worse meted out to the women who form the human rights group the Damas de Blanco, and the deployment of the military (dressed as civilians) to stamp on any show of dissent, although problems such as these do not feature in the official story.

In a month, I did not see a single newspaper on sale, with the exception of a couple of pensioners in Havana who were selling the English-language version of the Communist Party paper Granma to tourists for convertible pesos. “You just need to know where to look,” said our guide. But he didn’t tell us where. There are apparently 19 newspapers, 20 TV stations and 87 radio stations, the great majority serving localities, and all state-controlled. Five of the TV channels are national, and when I was watching, there always seemed to be cartoons on at least one channel and sometimes two. The channels don’t show advertisements, of course, but do carry public service announcements, like ‘use less electricity’, ‘keep rubbish covered’, ‘beware mosquitos’. Cubans can’t turn (legally) to foreign TV stations because it is against the law to have a satellite dish.

There is nothing in Cuba akin to the British newsagent, full of daily and weekly papers and magazines. The worldwide trend to read online is not responsible for the public scarcity of newspapers, because Cuba represses internet use. The Reporters Without Borders organisation classes Cuba with Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam as enemies of the internet. Any Cuban who is caught writing anything that the regime considers defamatory can expect to go to jail. There is no independent judicial system: justice is state directed, state controlled. In Cuba I felt that censorship was more pervasive than when I was there in 2006, when there was a sense that life was improving, that opportunities could only grow. I met different people of course, and saw different happenings on the streets, and so it is in no way a scientific comparison, just a feeling.

Contacting the rest of the world via the internet is possible only for Cubans who have government approval, for example because they work for state security; for those willing to risk an illegal connection; or who can afford the 6 cuc** to 10 cuc per hour at a monitored access point, for example in hotels catering for tourists. As these rates are one, two or three weeks’ wages for most working Cubans, they are an effective deterrent.

The telephone is not a cheap option, either. Reading the directory one day, I noted the costs of calling the rest of the world: $3.71 per minute to North America; $5.07 to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean; $6.63 to South America; and $8.78 to the rest of the world, including Europe. The minimum charge is for three minutes. I winced at these colossal amounts, which set the lowest cost for a call to Europe at $26.34… or more than the typical monthly wage. It’s like charging me well over $2,500 for three minutes speaking to someone in Australia. There is a cheaper option for residential customers of the state telecoms organisation ETECSA if they sign up to a special service, ranging from $1 a minute to Venezuela to $1.50 to the world outside the Americas, and the charges can be reversed in 11 countries including the UK, but international calls on the phone remain a luxury.

If I had distributed modems to help people connect to the internet, or equipment to receive satellite TV, not only would I have landed in jail, but my hosts too. Penalties are harsh. An American, Alan Gross, is serving 15 years for distributing computer equipment and satellite phones to Jewish groups in Cuba.

With a few socialist exceptions, no foreign papers or magazines are on sale. Books have to follow the approved political philosophy. Even the books of Leonardo Padura, winner of numerous international prizes and creator of the reflective Havana detective Mario Conde, are not widely available in Cuba. You might find one priced in cuc, which few Cubans can afford. I didn’t find any, but a member of a group I travelled with stayed in a house where the owner possessed one title. Most Cuban households do not have books. Where there are books, they tend to be pre-1990 (and often much earlier).

Mobile phones are probably the most successful technology for jumping over the high walls of Cuban censorship, although they are too expensive for most people, about 100 cuc to set up a contract and 5 cuc or so every month thereafter.*** Censorship by cost reinforces the censorship imposed by law, and together they separate Cuba from most of the rest of the world.

* ‘Radio Bemba — Word of Mouth News for Cubans’, by Mary Murray, NBC News, February 15th 2007. See http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/02/15/4376286-radio-bemba-word-of-mouth-news-for-cubans

** One convertible peso or cuc is worth 24 national pesos. £1 is about 1.5 cuc.

*** ‘Cuba-Cel Phones: Good Deal But…’ by Osmel Almaguer, January 11th 2012. http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=59545


Electrification of the Viñales valley: forward or backward step?

Off-grid heritage valley may soon be plugged in to mains electricity

The farms in Cuba’s Viñales valley, in countryside that UNESCO designated a world heritage site in 1999, have lots of history but no mod cons. There is no electricity supply to the small wooden cabins in which the farm families live. Our guide told us that government has taken a decision to bring mains electricity to the valley, even though this would mean the loss of world heritage status.

The Viñales valley, a UNESCO world heritage site. How would power lines affect this landscape?

I can see how beneficial electricity would be to families who lack even solar panels, which appear scarce, although a factory in the nearby city of Pinar del Rio manufactures them. In kitchens like the one pictured, lacking mains services, household work is hard and continuous.

Farmhouse kitchen in the Viñales valley, lacking all modern amenities.

Yet I can’t help feeling that there are other solutions, short of festooning the valley with power lines. Providing solar panels for every family would be a good start.

Also, what about helping the farm families to develop new sources of income, even enabling them to offer working holidays to foreigners keen to learn more about low-input organic mixed farming in the tropics? This cannot happen without government approval because foreigners are allowed to stay in private homes only if the premises are registered, licensed and taxed.

We were on a country walk with our guide, looking at tobacco and other crops. We were not the only group: the trails around the town of Viñales are busy with parties of foreigners following each other. We were told that more than 350 households in the town, where there is mains electricity, rent rooms to foreign tourists, and that the tourism industry is the economic mainstay. We saw houses being repaired and extensions under construction – many people in Viñales can afford to buy building materials, thanks to the considerable income from tourism.

In the tourism and tobacco hub of Viñales, Pinar del Rio, many families can afford to repair their homes.

There is a big backlog of repairs because over 6,000 buildings in and around Viñales were damaged by hurricanes in 2008. They were, in effect, uninsured losses because Cuba does not have a commercial home and contents insurance industry, and even if it did, most Cubans would not be able to afford cover. Imagine the premiums in this hurricane zone!

Farm with solar panels

Juan Alonso’s farm in the hilly Ramón Gordo locality, near Consolación del Sur in Pinar del Rio province, also took a battering in the 2008 hurricanes. The 40-hectare farm has needed nursing since then, because of the efforts required to restore soil, vegetation and buildings.

Juan Alonso's family, on their farm. They prioritise sustainability above technological progress.

The Alonso family, soon to be seven people including a new baby, grows maize, beans, tubers and fruits of many kinds, and keeps hens and pigs, but the soil is thin and only half to two-thirds of the farm is in production at any one time, because of the need to allow damaged and tired soils to recover.

Juan Alonso's farm: land in recovery after hurricane damage.

Juan is 73, and has lived on the farm all his life. His father came to the holding in 1920, so the family has stayed in the same place since long before the 1959 Revolution. The farmstead has two solar panels, provided in a pilot programme before 2006, when I last saw them. The panels have survived hurricanes because when a storm approaches they are taken down and stored in a special shelter.

Oxen pull these water barrels up from the reservoir on Juan Alonso's farm.

Two oxen supply the pulling power. One of their tasks is to pull a sledge carrying water barrels filled from the small reservoir below the farmstead.  The nearby slopes are in recovery. Tall grasses, planted along terraces, form protective barriers, sheltering soil from wind and rain.

The oxen on Juan Alonso's farm supply the pulling power.

The solar electricity enables the family to have lights, a TV and other small appliances. Kerosene fuels the refrigerator. The main house is simply made of planks on a timber frame, and is carefully maintained inside and out.

The farm makes one rethink the notion of ‘progress’. We have come to expect continuous advances in efficiency and productivity, but sustainable farming is more of a cyclical than a linear process.

If and when electricity does come to the farms in the Viñales valley, I cannot imagine that farm mechanisation will be far behind, and we will see tractors replacing oxen. For individual farm families, electrification and mechanisation would ease their heavy workloads.  Yet looking at the bigger picture of diminishing world resources, would this really be the best way forward? Power generation in Cuba depends heavily on oil. It is subsidised oil from Venezuela that underpins Cuba’s fragile economy.*

A more sustainable option might be to develop micro-generation projects similar to that on the Alonsos’ farm, so that farmers in an electrified Viñales valley would never have to depend on a permanent flow of oil from Venezuela.

* See ‘The Electric Power Sector in Cuba: Potential Ways to Increase Efficiency and Sustainability’, by Juan A B Belt, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADO407.pdf, accessed January 10th 2012. The report is undated but appears to have been written in 2009 or 2010.


Hard-up Cubans face food crisis

The subsidised food received by Cubans has eroded in quantity and variety. A couple of decades ago, the ration was enough to subsist on, but now there is only the rump of a ration, and it certainly does not include rump steak.

Danae Suarez, writing in www.havanatimes.org/?p=44351  (May 27th 2011) lists the monthly ration as:

  • 3 pounds white sugar
  • 1 pound brown sugar
  • Pack of coffee
  • 10 ounces red beans
  • 5 pounds white rice
  • Half a pound of chicken
  • 12 eggs
  • Cup of cooking oil.

No milk, except for children under seven. No fruit. No green vegetables. No tubers. There is some bread, but state bakeries are handicapped by a shortage of flour:  http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/cuba/110208/bread-rations-flour-prices-food (February 9th 2011).

Ration products and prices in a distribution point in Trinidad, southern Cuba, November 2011. The prices are in national pesos.The typical conversion rate is 24 national pesos to one convertible peso or cuc. One cuc is about 65 pence.

By January 2012, I was reading about disappearing coffee: http://primaveradigital.org/primavera/sociedad/sociedad/3079-ay-mama-ines-idonde-compramos-cafe  (January 9th 2012). The cost of coffee, when it could be found in a hard-currency shop, was about 3.45 cuc for four ounces — more than a fifth of the monthly wage of many medical professionals, for example.

As for rump or any type of steak, forget it. Farmers must by law sell their cattle to the state, and are prohibited from selling beef privately or even eating it themselves. Beef finds its way into menus for tourists but not onto plates in Cuban homes.

The government intends to abandon the ration book system entirely. I have no idea how the elderly, in particular, will survive. Their pensions are so miniscule that they cannot afford to buy on the open market.

Farmers' markets like his one in Vedado, Havana, help Cubans augment the inadequate ration-book supply, but more and more foods are becoming unaffordable.

One would think that, in the circumstances of food scarcity, pedlars would be allowed into the cities to sell their own produce. They do come, but furtively, because this is something else against the law. Customers are supposed to buy fruit and vegetables from designated stalls, not from the backpacks of travelling salesmen. While there is fresh produce to be found on stalls, a lot of the food is past its best. At control points on the roads outside cities, vehicles, passengers and luggage are often searched as police hunt for unauthorised traders and their wares.

It’s  not only food that costs far more than most Cubans can afford. The prices in the convertible currency shops in Cienfuegos, between Trinidad and the Bay of Pigs, made our eyes water. A ‘Hanel’ computer without a monitor, and with memory limited to 160GB plus 512 MB of RAM, cost 445.90 cuc, a shade under £300. A ‘Poulan’ lawn mower was priced at 601.05 cuc, about £400. It did come with a Briggs & Stratton engine, but who in Cuba can afford one? A Panasonic air conditioner was ticketed at 1,057.65 cuc, around £705. I met Cuban professionals earning the equivalent of £12 to £15 a MONTH. Consumer goods like these are impossible for them to buy.

Cienfuegos is a tidy town, a centre of oil refining, an industry largely financed by Venezuela, and the presence of shops at all indicates that some people have money. The cathedral, on the main square, is being renovated. The place feels rather un-Cuban, and was in fact founded by a group of French families in 1819.

We were en route to the Bay of Pigs, scene of the invasion by Cuban exiles two years after the revolution, in April 1961. The seaside resort of Playa Giron, one of the landing points, has a museum dedicated to the invasion and its defeat. The photos are evocative, especially those showing the appalling living conditions pre-1959 in the surrounding swamplands.

More than 50 years later, Cuba is in the throes of another critical transition. Pensioners and workers on the low state salaries see their living standards sinking below subsistence. The minority of Cubans who have plenty of money struggle to find the foods and household goods they want.

Tourists in resorts like Varadero, segregated in their all-inclusive enclaves, sunbathe in blissful ignorance of Cubans’ daily battles to feed themselves and their families. The food crisis is hidden from them.

Weighing the rice ration in a bodega, a food distribution point. Rice is a staple in Cuba but some 400,000 tons, 60% of consumption, are imported. Vietnam is the principal supplier.


Huanglongbing hammers Cuban economy

Huanglongbing is an incurable and fatal disease of citrus trees and their fruit, which is sweeping through the world’s plantations of oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, limes, lemons and other citrus varieties.

Before travelling to Cuba, I knew nothing of Huanglongbing, either under that name or the alternatives of Yellow Dragon or Citrus Greening Disease. I was part of a group visiting the headquarters of ANAP, the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequenos or National Association of Small Farmers, in the Vedado district of Havana, when I first heard about this plague.

The UK fair trade organisation Traidcraft buys citrus juices from Cuba in the knowledge that farmers’ co-operatives benefit from the premiums paid. This extra cash had been used to good effect when I visited back in 2006. Co-operatives had invested in irrigation, workshops, spare parts for Soviet-era machinery, and better homes for members.

Machinery from the former Soviet Union is still in everyday use in Cuba.

It was a different story in 2011.  Production of citrus juice had plummeted, because of Huanglongbing, and in consequence premium income has diminished too, and the co-ops are unable to fund big improvements. The Cuban economy suffers.

Huanglongbing is a bacterial disease caused by Candidatus Liberibacter and spread by jumping plant lice, Psyllidae of the type Diaphorina citri. There is no effective, reliable treatment. The disease has spread through citrus-growing regions in Asia, except for Japan, and is common in South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Florida and Cuba.

One day I saw that our guide had a newspaper, so I asked if I could read it after him. It was the Cinco de Septiembre (Fifth of September), the state weekly for the province of Cienfuegos, dated November 25th 2011. It contained an article about Huanglongbing. I read that a local state firm, Citricos Arimao, received 33,000 tonnes of citrus fruits in 2001-02. In 2011, the total failed to reach 5,000 tonnes, because of Huanglongbing. That’s a fall of 85%.

Dead plantations were being grubbed out and new trees were being planted, but the area of new trees was just 72.26 hectares. Citricos Arimao plans to have fruit from 200 hectares of new, healthy trees by 2018, but expects harvests to be modest, less than 3,000 tonnes in 2016. The hope is that 24,000 tonnes will be reached in the early 2020s.

This replanting in Cienfuegos is in the hands of the UBPC Aviles. UBPC stands for Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa, a state-owned but worker-managed form of organisation. UBPC Aviles is planting varieties of oranges, grapefruit, limes and lemons in tree nurseries as far as possible from the sick plantations.

Our group visited two co-operatives affiliated to ANAP where, in the past, premiums earned from the Fairtrade label have helped the farmer members and their families. Both co-ops are near Ciego de Avila in central Cuba.  One is a CPA (cooperativa de producción agropecuaria, a crop and livestock co-op) and the other is a CCS (cooperativa de créditos y servicios, a credit and services co-op). In CPAs the co-op itself owns the land. In a CCS,  the individual farmers own their land and co-operate to obtain finance, machinery sharing, administration and other services. Both the co-ops were named after the 19th century Cuban hero José Marti.

Taking a break at the CPA co-op José Marti near Ciego de Avila. The co-op has been badly hit by Huanglongbing citrus disease.

The CPA José Marti at Ceballos, north of Ciego de Avila, has suffered from Huanglongbing. The Fairtrade premiums no longer roll in, because the they were related to citrus juices from the now-depleted orchards. Since 2008, the energies of the co-op’s 99 members have been needed to change the farming system away from reliance on citrus to a more diverse pattern of guava, mango, pineapple and papaya, and a greater emphasis on produce to feed the members themselves, such as beans, tubers, goats and pigs. The 99, who work 469 hectares (1,159 acres) between them, have had to sell their output at fixed priced to the state, but in future will be able to market 20% directly, a radical step after decades of centralised planning. This may help them achieve better prices.

The income decline resulting from Huanglongbing, and the Cuban state’s own financial hardship, means that the co-op is still without a reservoir. In 2006, the water table was on average about 30 metres below the surface, and was falling. In 2011, the water table was between 20 and 50 metres under the surface, a little lower on average than five years earlier, but saved from a faster decline by strong rains, especially in the second half of 2011. Sixty hectares benefit from irrigation systems purchased when premium income was far higher than now.

While hoping to resurrect the citrus plantations, the CPA’s future plans are not confined to oranges and grapefruit. Members want to add the Fairtrade designation to their mango and guava, a project requiring the full support of ANAP because of the high costs of certification.

Huanglongbing is a severe blow to CPA José Marti. It brought to an end the sense of progress that was alive in 2006, when I visited and saw the plant nursery, office, and machinery repair shop that had been constructed with the aid of Fairtrade premiums. The last significant project financed with the help of premium income was in 2006.

The disease has forced the co-op members to plant new crops, and consequently to experience a period of low income while those crops become established. The farmers in this co-op hope to establish new citrus orchards, but well aware of the absence of proven treatment for stricken trees, they will continue to diversify by planting pineapple, papaya, guava and mango.

The nearby CCS José Marti, larger than the CPA with over 400 members owning in excess of 3,000 hectares, has also suffered badly from Huanglongbing. The CCS produces less than one-fifth of the pre-2008 quantity of citrus, 2,000 tonnes compared with over 10,000 tonnes. Fairtrade premium income has slumped as a result. The last major central project, a repair workshop for machinery, was complete when I saw it previously in 2006.

The farmer members are busy diversifying. The land in production, about 70% of the total, produces 23,000 tonnes of crops annually, a mix of fruit, tubers, legumes and leafy vegetables. Beans, tomatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes and tobacco all feature.

Farmers are reluctant to replant citrus trees on the same ground, fearing the return of the disease. At present the only Fairtrade premium received at this CCS is for 500 tonnes of mango, but members are hoping that their guava and pineapple crops will soon be certified too. They are also turning to small-scale food processing to boost their incomes: there are 17 such ventures within the co-op. We visited one, an on-farm enterprise making guava paste, packed in blocks like chocolate. The guava paste factory provides work for six people, who produce 2,000 packets a day for the tourism industry and for local consumption. The next phase of development will include additional flavours, such as guava-with-mango.

Adding value on the farm: guava paste plant near Ceballos in central Cuba.

Huanglongbing is not the only setback faced by the co-ops. The weather has also been causing problems: the dry season tends to last longer, and when the rains come they are heavier and more damaging.

Irrigating tomato seedlings on Nardo Brito's farm, CCS José Marti. Tomatoes are a new crop after the orange trees fell victim to Huanglongbing, and were grubbed out.

CCS member Gaspar ‘Nardo’ Brito and his wife, daughter and son-in-law have had to drastically change their farming activities and priorities since 2006, mainly because of Huanglongbing but also because of more prolonged droughts. Nardo, who was a founder member of the co-op in 1961 and who at 86 still directs operations, used to grow oranges on half of his skilfully farmed two hectares at Ceballos. Then came Huanglongbing. The orange trees have been grubbed out, and now Nardo, his family and 12 staff grow rose varieties from Ecuador and Bulgaria, tomatoes, avocados, and other high-value crops.  The crops are irrigated with the help of  water stored during the rains in tanks holding 111,000 litres.

Gaspar 'Nardo' Brito and his wife Georgina: expert, hard-working and resilient farmers.

In Cuban terms the farm staff are well-paid, working six hours a day for a total of 27 pesos a day in 2010-11, so for 24 days worked in a typical month they receive almost 650 pesos or 27 cuc, just over £18. If the flower crop received a Fairtrade premium, co-op members like Nardo would be even better placed to develop their farming enterprises, but I was told that at present there are no Fairtrade flowers from Cuba.

Can roses come to the rescue after the plague of Huanglongbing? Nardo Brito certainly hopes so.

Fairtrade certification itself is no small hurdle. Apart from the agricultural and social welfare standards that must be met, the certification process is a big cost. ANAP currently pays €40,000 a year to certify 25 co-ops as Fairtrade producers. This is about 10% of the annual premium income. Administration uses up €20,000, and the remainder, some €340,000, is distributed to the co-ops,  an average of  €13,600 per co-op. This does not amount to very much per member.

The yield damage wrought by Huanglongbing curtails the impact of Fairtrade premiums in Cuba. The Fairtrade label, applying to some of the products produced by eight CPA co-ops and 17 CCS co-ops out of a combined total of over 1,000 co-ops across Cuba, needs to apply to more products if premium income is to revive.

Apart from citrus, the Fairtrade label applied in 2011 to small quantities of Cuban mango, guava and pineapple juice, and a little sugar and honey. ANAP is keen to increase the premium income on these products. The costs of certification are a barrier, because each separate crop or livestock product has to be individually certified. ANAP is negotiating with FLO-CERT, the certification body for Fairtrade products, for approval to act as a co-operative in its own right, rather than as a representative organisation. If successful, this change should make certification simpler in Cuba, but perhaps with the risk of reducing non-partisan oversight of standards on the ground.

Around 350,000 farmers are affiliated to ANAP. They are the buffer between Cuba and starvation. Their holdings average 8 to 13 hectares and account for 24% of all farmland, on which they produce almost 60% of the food originating within the country, according to Cuba commentator Marc Franc, writing on the website www.internalreform.blogspot.com (‘Land leases extended plus inheritance rights’, December 22nd 2011).

Cuba is far from self-sufficient in food, importing between 60% and 70% of the total consumed, depending on the quality and quantity of home harvests. Were it not for the small farmers, Cubans would often be very hungry. The large state-owned farms, which were supposed to be the key to agricultural prosperity after the Revolution, have not lived up to expectations, and huge tracts of land are uncultivated.

Each private farmer is allowed to own and bequeath (but not sell) up to 67 hectares (165 acres). In 2008 the government began to offer 10-year leases of uncultivated state land, and from January 2012 farmers who take on state land can apply to take on up to 67 additional hectares, on 25-year leases. They will be able to improve and put buildings on the leased land.

Despite the considerable problem of Huanglongbing for the important citrus industry, these land reforms brighten the outlook for domestic food production. Fairtrade certification for a greater range of products, from a larger number of co-ops, could also contribute to the revival of Cuban agriculture.