Reports and Comment: Cuba

Castro commits Cuba to an agricultural future
More

"What remains to be done now is to name this year. What do you think? If you agree with it, we shall hereby baptize this year as the Year of the Decisive Effort, and this year will be eighteen months long. The next New Year we will probably celebrate on the first of July, 1970." Fidel Castro was speaking to about one million people--or one Cuban in eight--who came to the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana on January 2 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. For months a single message had been urged, on the radio, in the newspapers, on each billboard in the city: "Everyone! To the Plaza with Fidel! The 2nd of January 1969! Viva El X Aniversario!" They had come by bus and by boat, and they waited all night in the shelter of a wall on which was inscribed an immense and multicolored promise: the Road of Communism is to create Riches with Conscience. At dawn, the invited guests came through the crowd to their seats in the Tribuna, a concrete balcony at Fidel's feet. Foreigners, journalists, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister. The crew of the Cuban fishing boat seized in October off Venezuela. The Moncada Brigade of the best workers from each factory and farm, with honorable red-and-black flags. Fidel spoke at 10 A.M., for 130 minutes, with rain clouds overhead.

"We have not yet graduated as revolutionaries," he said through the Japanese earphones that were given to foreign visitors for simultaneous translation into a sort of comic-book Miami American. "We have no university diploma. But we have graduated from the primary school of revolution. We are now going into the junior high school of revolution. After ten years another ten years begin."

"We did not know the geography"

In the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, the old Cuba died; in the second, it is to be born again, to grow again like sugar in a field. The unspoken dialectic of Fidel's speech places nationalism and revolution side by side, and synthesizes them, through agricultural development, in the Cuban earth. Castro's language is heavy with an accretion of detail and anecdote, sounding at times like the Georgics of Virgil. "Once droughts have been overcome," he began, "once hurricanes have been coped with through the proper protection of crops; once plagues are eliminated and undergrowth cleared . . ." After ten years of stumbling progress, the country has experienced bitter deprivation. In Havana, strict rationing is now in effect; even the hours to be spent waiting in line for food are rationed. Yet the path of revolutionary development now seems determined. Cuba is to be an agricultural community, the garden of the world.

"To tell the truth, at the beginning of the Revolution," said Fidel, “we did not even know the geography of Cuba--not even the geography! I would say, not even the landscape." To all revolutionary Cubans--and to the homesick diplomats, who tell one at the United Nations of the oysters in Havana and the hills of Las Villas Province--the great psychic achievement of the last ten years has been the rejection of foreign, or American, patterns of cultural and economic domination; the destruction of the Havana that was the Whorehouse of the West and of the colonially distorted Cuban economy. Cuba has identified itself unequivocally with the Latin-American Third World: it is an underdeveloped country with material problems like any another, "confronting underdevelopment, with no experience, in the conditions of today's world." In his speech, Fidel said of the economic blockade that "it makes us laugh, and it cannot be otherwise." Cuba’s children's toys come, westwards, from China; its bureaucrats joke that their ties are Swiss, their shoes Chinese, and their socks Czechoslovakian. Cuban economic development is no longer defined negatively in terms of "Yankee" and "Imperialist." The Revolution and the Nation and the Land are to develop as one and for the young Cuban ideologue the three have a mystical, sensual unity. Next year, 1970, will be the' Year of the Ten Millions; Cuba is supposed to produce ten million tons of cane. Fidel said in his speech that "the Ten Millions are a Debt of Honor to the Revolution."

Pounding and roaring

The frontier of the revolution is the frontier of agriculture. The most politically advanced settlements in the country are the new citrus plantations on the Isle of Pines, Treasure Island, where goods are allocated on the basis of need, and where the village matriarch told a visiting American journalist to go back to his own land and work for the revolution so that he too could give free candy to his children at the Feast of the Three Kings. (Candy, of course, is severely rationed in Cuba.) On the Isle of Pines, and increasingly across the country, it is the farmers and the food technicians who are the new elite. There was a delegation of hydraulic engineers from the Aswan Dam traveling with Major Faustino Perez, veteran of the Sierra Maestre, and Minister of Water; heroes of the Revolution. In the agricultural vanguard, as everywhere in Cuba, Fidel is personally dominating. "He always shows up when you don't expect him." He is obsessed with statistics: half a million cows are growing in this country; in the next decade agricultural land will increase from 9,880,000 acres to 16,500,000 acres; by 1970 Cuba's agricultural production will be approximately double what it was before January 1, 1959. "It is good to eat ice cream, it is nutritious and full of milk and cream, and besides it is made of sugar, it is a patriotic food."

He looks, even, as though he were made in the black Oriente clay; pounding and roaring, he has a pastoral, ecologist's, vision of the land: "We shall put cane fields by the sugar mills, rice where rice should be, and everything in its place."

Green belt

By committing Cuba to an agricultural future, the Cuban government believes they will achieve an unprecedented fusion of patriotic and revolutionary zeal, a fusion they have experienced, and want to communicate to the rest of the Cuban people. As usual, the medium for mass political education will be Fidel.

The most extraordinary expressions of the new synthesis are to be found in Havana, which in the Year of the Decisive Effort is a city in crisis, a city of revolution within the revolution. "Havana Province," said Fidel, "which used to receive a great many of the root and other vegetables it consumes from the rest of the country, now receives practically none of these products from other provinces. In 1970 the Province of Havana will grow as many root and other vegetables as the whole country produced before the revolution." In the first decade of the revolution the old Havana died; in the second a purged, experimental city is to be born. The city is now surrounded by a cordon, or green belt, and in the planners' cathartic future, an integral city area will be created, fields and inner city in a single unit. The planners want none of the urban sprawl of other nations.

The center of Havana is to be a place for students and bureaucrats alone. Already the pre-revolutionary population of the city is leaving in busloads for the Eastern provinces, and for the rural parts of Havana Province, beyond the green belt. The old Spanish villas have been turned into dormitories for some 200,000 scholarship students, chosen from across the country. Food is scarcest in Havana, and the sugar rations smallest. The city streets are as clean as any in the world: ten minutes after Fidel spoke, the Plaza was filled with garbage men, sweeping and scrubbing the stones. There are no police patrols: only the traffic cops, young girls in khaki miniskirts with sheriff's stars and cowboy boots. Even the narrow alleys of the old Spanish district are empty, with perhaps one woman sitting outside the Revolutionary Defense Committee rooms, to guard the peace as far as she can see, five blocks north and five blocks south. The social and cultural puritanism, which is to Western visitors one of the most disturbing aspects of the Cuban Revolution, has been concentrated in Havana; the mores of sexual imperialism are for this generation of Cubans a dark part of some private past. One is told, everywhere, of the depravity of the pre-revolutionary streets; where, one wonders in Havana, are the notorious small boys who were selling their sisters on January 1, 1959? Can they all be in Miami?

Havana the parasite

To the new revolutionaries puritanism has not been enough. It has not been enough to try to drive social corruption back across the Straits of Florida. From young Communists in Havana, young government officials, one hears, with the revolutionary euphoria, a persistent self-criticism. They feel that as city-dwellers they are physically inferior.

It is as though the effort to be demanded of Havana is physical rather than moral or psychological. We have been, they say, like a parasite feeding off the rest of the island. We have consumed, and we have not produced. We are bureaucrats, and we have not worked.

The conversation of the young Party enthusiasts in Havana is dense, in an almost pagan way, with concrete descriptions and images. You see, they say, the problem is that new people go out into the fields, and they are weeding at the beginning of the year, and by mistake they pull up the young coffee plants. Or, we do have Soviet in machines for cutting corn, but they have not been worked out so well yet. They cut the corn too short, and in the next harvest the corn does not grow. Or, Fidel cuts ten tons of corn a day. How many do you cut? We now catch so much fish, but many kinds of fish the Cuban people do not like to eat.

The green belt is the first part of Havana that foreigners are shown. One makes wide looping detours through the suburban cornfields to see the coffee plantation that is tended each Sunday by the press section of the Foreign Relations Ministry. Almost everyone in Havana goes into the countryside on weekends for "voluntary work." Groups of people--fourth-year chemical engineering students, or a government department, or the families who live on a certain block--are given responsibility for particular farms or fields. They are organized into squads by the school, or ministry, or factory, or by their local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution; and the work is voluntary only in the context of the extreme spiritual value attached by the government to the physical transformation of the capital. Ironically, it is the very ideologues who are responsible for the new agriculturalism who will remain in Havana.

The work of the Cuban bureaucrats will be the administration of all agricultural economy, just as the students will study "useful" sciences such as nutrition and soil technology and hydraulic engineering. The new scientific and technical campus of the University of Havana is in the cane fields of the cordon, and the students do agricultural work for three months each year. "Not in these fields," said the project director, gesturing into the empty countryside. "But nearby." Even the Havana mental hospital, which houses 4000 patients and is one of the proudest achievements of the revolution, is in the green belt. Its inmates work on the land, in a strange and pastoral division of labor, keeping chickens and growing acre upon acre of red roses.

No one seems to know when the new, whole Havana will be a reality. But the vision of a productive city in a productive nation is one which is closely tied to the psychic roots of the revolution. Cuban life in the last ten years has been circumscribed by a collection of repudiations: the young revolutionaries want a new, indigenous pattern of economic development; a new, indigenous metropolis; a new, indigenous social morality. ("The kids like voluntary work," some Communist youth leaders explained. "They think it's like summer camp, a great place to get to know girls. . . It's not promiscuity we mind-but it takes so much time, it interferes with one's work.")

Next word

It will be clear that these reflections are based on conversation with the young, enthusiastic Cuban Communists who are the advance guard of the new revolution. There are people in Cuba whose lives and beliefs have hardly changed in the last ten years, and their views have not been represented here. Foreign visitors to Havana live in one of the two enormous old hotels, which crouch like twin cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, at the periphery of the revolution. Foreigners are well fed, and gaze out to sea in the direction of Nassau. Delegations, SDS and the North Vietnamese, are in the Havana Libre, which used to be the Hilton; the journalists, all together, complaining, are on the fourth floor of the Nacional. Although one can move about quite freely, the Cubans to whom one talks at any length are the young revolutionaries. Yet this is appropriate, to the extent that it is from these people that one can derive a representative view of the new Cuba. The New Revolution is after all their vision, and their creation.

The healthy, rural Cuba is still only a chiliastic ideal. But it is the ideal of people who happen to be in a position to change Cuban society, and to change the aspirations of that society. Driving from the airport, through the green belt, the visitor to Cuba passes a series of ten red-and-blue government placards. R (the first one reads)—1959; E–1960; V-1961 . . . and on to 0–1967, the Year of the Heroic Guerrilla; N-1968, the Year of Heroic Endeavor. R-E-V-O-L-U-C-I-O-N: ten letters in the word, ten years, ten posters. Nineteen sixty-nine is to be the Year of the Decisive Effort; 1970, the Year of the Ten Millions--ten million tons of sugarcane.

 

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In