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Est. April 5, 2002
February 25, 2016 - Issue 642

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Real U.S. Opening to Cuba Starts
With a Most Practical Factory


"The lack of pesticides for agricultural production
is likely to have a positive long-term impact on
Cubans’ well being since such chemicals are often
associated with various negative health implications
such as certain forms of cancer."

As manufacturing plants go, the planned factory for farm tractors is a rather modest affair, just like the tractors themselves, but the Alabama company that will build the plant in Cuba is hoping that the small, versatile tractor is just what is needed to enhance the island nation’s food production.

Cleber LLC of Paint Rock, Alabama, has received permission from the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets to build a factory near Havana to produce the small Oggun tractor, designed specifically for the small private farms and urban farms that have proliferated, since the collapse of the Soviet Union at Christmastime in 1991.

The U.S.S.R. had been the major trading partner of Cuba, since the revolution of 1959.

The Soviets had provided Cuba with consumer goods, machinery, machine parts and tools, probably most importantly, it provided them with oil and petroleum products. That included diesel and gasoline for farm tractors, many of which were large machines imported from. Soviet bloc countries. Those tractors were designed for collective farms (much like U.S. corporate “farms”) and were not really suitable for farms of a few acres. Most of the consumer goods came from other countries and more than half of the calories eaten by Cubans came from other countries.

Having been cut off from its primary energy supply, the Cuban government wasted no time in finding another source of farm power.  They had their farmers start training more oxen and they quickly transferred dependence on oil to dependence on cattle power. As well, they began a massive program to produce food by the organic method and the country was well positioned to do so, having 11 percent of the scientists and researchers in Latin America, even though it has only 2 percent of the population.

Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet bloc began to wane in the late 1980s, a time of uncertainty for both. When the collapse came, Cuba was forced to go from an industrialized form of food production, similar to Florida or California or the wheat and Corn Belt in the U.S., to organic production, which is done without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, almost overnight. It took several years to get the new method in operation throughout the country, but they did it and the response of the people was overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to the greatly improved quality of the food in the market places, the farms were being privatized and small farms were springing up, many of them in the populated areas, making local and wholesome foods available to most Cubans. The transition to the use of organic farming and oxen brought great derision from many in the so-called developed countries, particularly in the U.S. and more particularly in the conservative and Right Wing newspapers and magazines. But it worked and is working.

Those same papers and magazines and commentators gloated over the difficulties of Cuba at that time, making light of the plan to return to animal power, saying that it was a backslide to pre-industrial times and was a sign of failure. As it turned out, Cuba’s organic experiment became a model for other countries, which were attempting to achieve food sovereignty, a term first used by Via Campesina, a global peasants’ organization, which in 1996, asserted that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. It is part of an effort to short-circuit the transnational corporations that have begun to rule the food system around the world.

Until 1993, the state controlled 80 percent of the farmland, but most of the Cuban state farmland was broken up at that time into small, private farms. The farmers could not own the land, but could rent it at no cost, for as long as they wanted it and as long as they produced. Whatever they produced above the quota for their key crops set by the state, they could sell on the open market and keep the profits. It was a sharp departure for the Communist Party-controlled food production system, but it was necessary for everyone to grow as much food as possible, since they were in a food crisis.

In some places, the caloric intake dropped by half what it was before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., but after a few years, they regained their full caloric food intake per capita. At the time of collapse the caloric intake was about 3,000 calories per day. The calorie intake dropped to between 1,400 and 2,400 calories. Between 1991 and 1995, the caloric intake increased back to pre-collapse levels. One of the results was that the obesity rate dropped and the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease fell dramatically.

The United Nations’ Environment Programme noted: “Havanans transformed their vacant lots and backyards into small farms and grazing areas for animals. This resulted in 350,000 new well-paying jobs (out of a total workforce of 5 million), 4 million tons of fruits and vegetables produced annually in Havana (up tenfold in a decade) and a city of 2.2 million agriculturally self-sufficient inhabitants. And, the UNEP noted about the transition to organic growing: “Moreover, the lack of pesticides for agricultural production is likely to have a positive long-term impact on Cubans’ well being since such chemicals are often associated with various negative health implications such as certain forms of cancer.”

There is speculation from many observers that the organic movement in Cuba has been just a stopgap effort to provide food for the nation, until the resumption of conventional (the use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides) agriculture. While there may be a move in that direction in the future, the positive aspects of organic agriculture likely will continue in much of the country, regardless of the pressure of global agribusiness corporations, which are bound to be present in Cuba as the nation opens up to the rest of the international community.

Until then, small farmers, urban and rural, will need small, mechanized equipment, such as the Alabama company, Cleber’s, Oggun tractor, specially designed for the Cuban market. It has yet to be mass-produced, but the company will invest between $5 million and $10 million to build the factory for the tractor which will sell for between $8,000 and $10,000. It is designed to be easy to maintain and repair, either in a home shop or in the field.

The company, in a statement, said: “We designed our machines with Cuban farmers in mind, to supplement the organopónic farming practices already in use on many Cuban farms. For more than 30 years Cubans have adopted organopónic farming methods, producing some of the most sought after, healthy and natural produce today. We’ve designed the Oggun tractor to aid Cuban farmers who want to continue organopónic farming methods but with increased production.”

Cleber co-owners Cuban-born Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons reportedly plan to self-finance their factory and are certain that their tractor will be a hit with Cuban farmers. There are elements in the U.S. government that think that this small operation has all of the earmarks of a successful venture, as well, since they are giving permission to the first American company to start operations in Cuba, since the 1959 revolution.

President Obama’s opening to Cuba is a small step, with the relaxation of some kinds of visitors to the island, but the tractor factory is a sign that relations might be opened further if Cleber does well. After nearly six decades of having the U.S. boot on its neck, with worldwide sanctions and embargoes and propaganda, Cuba is emerging from a long night of isolation, and appears ready to take its place among the nations of the Western Hemisphere Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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