Travels May 2003

Carbonaro and Primavera

With gasoline prices in Cuba going up and up, it is once again an excellent time to have—and to be—an ox.
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One thing will never change: Carbonaro must always be on the right. Five years from now, ten years, even twenty, if all goes well, Carbonaro will still be on the right and Primavera on the left, the two of them yoked together, pulling a spindly plough across the loamy fields in the hills outside Cienfuegos. Oxen are like that: absolutely rigid in their habits, intractable once they have learned their ways. Even when a working pair is out of harness and is being led to water or to a fresh spot to graze, the two animals must be aligned just as they are accustomed or they will bolt, or at the very least dig in and refuse to go any farther until order is restored, each ox in its place.

Carbonaro and Primavera were not always a pair. Twenty years ago Primavera was matched up and trained with an ox named Cimarrón. They worked side by side for two decades. But Cimarrón was a glutton, and he broke into the feed one day and ate himself sick, dying happy with incurable colic. It was an enormous loss. An ox costs thousands of pesos and must be babied along until the age of two and then requires at least a year of training before he can be put to work. It is especially difficult to lose half of a working pair: you have to find a new partner who fits the temperament and strength of your animal, and above all, you have to find an ox who can work on the now vacant side. Primavera would work only on the left. He could be matched only with a partner who was used to working on the right. It was a lucky thing to find Carbonaro, a right-sider and a pretty good match in terms of size, although to this day he is a little afraid of Primavera and hangs back just a bit.

Anyway, it was a lucky thing to find an ox at all. For a while oxen had seemed part of the Cuban landscape—huge, heavy-bodied creatures, with necks rising in a lump of muscle, their gigantic heads tapering into teacup-sized muzzles; homely animals with improbably slim legs and a light tread, their whip-thin tails flicking in a kind of staccato rhythm, the rest of their being unmoving, imperturbable, still. But then cheap Soviet oil came to Cuba, and chemical fertilizers, and, most important, tractors. In fact, during the 1960s and 1970s so many tractors were being sent to Cuba that there were more than the farmers could use. Sometimes when the Agriculture Ministry called the cooperatives to announce the arrival of more tractors, no one even bothered to go to the port to pick them up. During that time hardly anyone wanted oxen. With a heavy tractor a farmer could rip through a field at five or six times the speed he could with a team. It was, or it seemed, so much more modern, and so much simpler, than dealing with the complicated politics of a flesh-and-blood team. Hardly anyone was raising or training oxen. With such a windfall of tractors, no one imagined that oxen would ever again be anything other than a quaint anachronism.

Even during the time of abounding tractors Humberto Quesada preferred using Primavera and Cimarrón—and then, of course, Carbonaro—but Humberto is an independent sort of man. His grandfather was brought to Cuba as a slave and was put to work on a sugar plantation of 70,000 rich acres owned by a Massachusetts family. Humberto's father was a slave there too, and Humberto as a child worked beside him in the fields, so that he could learn how to do what he assumed he'd grow up to do. Although the Quesadas were slaves, they were mavericks. Humberto's sister Ramona, a tiny woman with tight curls and a dry laugh, married the son of white farmers down the road—a scandal at the time, but one that yielded a happy fifty-year marriage that became the warm center of the joined families. And of course Humberto went his own way. After the Castro revolution he became a truck driver, but he kept a hand in farming. It was different, because he was farming his own land, a piece of the old plantation. "The land is the foundation of everything," he told me not long ago. "If you have land, you always have something." He was encouraged to join a cooperative, but like many Cuban farmers, he chose to work alone. "There's always a lazy person in a group, so I don't like being part of groups," he explained. Moreover, he resisted each time the government tried to cut back a little bit of his land. Recently the government wanted to build a health clinic on a piece of his property, but once the official in charge of the appropriation realized that the magnificent sweet potatoes he regularly enjoyed were from Humberto's farm, he changed his mind and said Humberto should have more land, not less.

Once or twice Humberto rented a tractor, but he didn't like it. "It presses too hard," he explained. "The land ends up flattened, like a Cuban sandwich." Even when everyone else was using tractors, using chemicals, growing only sugar, Humberto ploughed with oxen; fertilized naturally, the way his father had taught him; cultivated tomatoes and corn and lettuce and beans—and sweet potatoes. Humberto never actually owned the oxen. He borrowed them from his neighbor, whose father had fought beside Humberto's father in the War of Independence.

When the Soviet money ran out, the battalions of tractors, now out of gas, rattled to a standstill, and oxen—quaint, anachronistic oxen—were once again worth their weight in gold. It was a lucky farmer who had never given them up, who still had a working team, who could still plough and plant even in the worst moments after the Soviet collapse. Luckier still was a farmer who had stuck with such crops as corn and tomatoes rather than being seduced by the money that had seemed as if it would flow forever from sugar. In such a moment a man like Humberto no longer seemed a throwback. Now in his eighties, slightly lame, wizened, Humberto is everything the new Cuban farmer needs to be: small-scale, efficient, diversified, organic—and, most important, invulnerable to the ups and downs of Cuba's gasoline economy, which once depended entirely on Soviet good will and has since come to rest precariously on Venezuelan. Most of the imported oil in Cuba these days comes from Venezuela, and because of the good relationship between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's President, the price had, until recently, been especially favorable. But Chávez was nearly overthrown in April of last year, and when he regained his footing, he suspended the shipments. Across Cuba gasoline prices rose by as much as 20 percent. It was a very good time to have an ox.

One recent morning Humberto stopped by to say hello to his sister, who lives with her extended family on another piece of the old plantation property. It was a brilliant, breezy day. Outside Ramona's little cottage a couple of chickens were worrying the dirt, and a litter of piglets were chasing around in a pile of hay. The cottage is tidy, old, and unadorned; there is something timeless about it, as if nothing here, or nearby, had changed in twenty or thirty or fifty years. And, of course, nothing much has changed in the countryside: the elemental facts, the worries over sun and water and whether the seeds have germinated and the eggs have hatched, don't ever change. In Cuba right now there is a sense of the moment, a sense that the country is on the brink of newness and change, a sense that the future is unfurling right now—but the countryside has a constancy, a permanence. And these days Humberto feels like a rich man. He said that everyone he knows is going crazy looking for oxen, and that you have to barter for them or apply to the government, and that anyone who still knows how to train a team—a skill that was of course considered obsolete when the tractors prevailed—is being offered a premium for his talents. He grinned as he said this, pantomiming the frantic gestures of a desperate man looking high and low for a trained ploughing team.

Someday, no doubt, the tractors will start up again, and the hills beyond Cienfuegos and the fields outside Havana and the meadows in Camagüey and Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba will be ploughed faster than the fastest team could dream of. Then, once again, oxen won't be golden anymore. They will be relics, curiosities. But this is their moment, just as it is Humberto's moment, when being slow and shrewd and tough is paying off.

After we'd talked awhile, Humberto got up and headed down the drive and over to his neighbor's, and a few minutes later he reappeared, leading the two oxen, who were walking side by side. He stopped in the yard near the cottage and brought the animals to a halt and stood beside them, one hand laid lightly on Primavera's neck. The oxen shuffled their feet a little and looked sidelong at the cottage, the chickens, a curtain ruffling in the breeze in Ramona's entryway. Humberto's straw hat was tipped back, and it cast a lacy shadow across his face; he leaned a little against the animal's warm gray shoulder and he smiled.

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