Gag Me With a Mango: Seattle P.I. Op-Ed Extols Cuba's Communist Agriculture [Update - Author Responds]

You might have thought they had gone the way of the dodo bird. But as per a sighting on today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer web site, there are still defenders of communism out there in the Western press.

The P-I saw fit to accord space on its op-ed page to Andrew Buncombe of the UK's Independent newspaper. His column was entitled [not a typo] Cuba's agricultural revolution an example to the world. Actually, it could have been worse.  The P-I could have used the original Independent headline.  Ready? The good life in Havana: Cuba's green revolution.

If the headline wasn't enough to stop you dead in your tracks, the opening paragraph should have sent you running for the anti-emetic:

"To the right lay revolutionary tomatoes and to the left lay revolutionary lettuces, while in the glass in my hand, filled to the brim and frothing with vitality, was the juice from revolutionary mangoes. It was thick, unfiltered and fabulously sweet. It was also organic."

Other annotated excerpts:

"Urban farm[s] . . . are at the center of a social transformation that may turn out to be as important as anything else that has been achieved during Castro's 47 years in power."

And we all know how many achievements there have been!

"Laura Enriquez, a sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley, who has written extensively on the subject of Latin American agriculture, said: 'What happened in Cuba was remarkable. It was remarkable that they decided to prioritize food production. Other countries in the region took the neo-liberal [i.e. free market] option and exported 'what they were good at' and imported food.'"

Surprise! A Berkeley sociologist thinks communism beats the free market, too. Well, that wraps it up for me.

"The Vivero Organoponico Alamar is considered one of the most successful. Established less than 10 years ago, the 0.7-hectare plot employs about 25 people."

0.7 hectares equals 1.7 acres. It takes 25 people to farm it. And this is one of the 'most successful' operations? At that rate, a 1000-acre vegetable farm in California's Imperial Valley, one of the most productive farming areas in the world, would require 14,705 workers. !Ay caramba! The fact is that US agriculture is incredibly efficient. For some eye-popping numbers, check here. One example: In 1900, it took 35-40 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Today, only two and a half hours and one acre of land are required to produce 100 bushels. Sounds like the Cubans are stuck in the 1900 model, at best.

"'Not everything is perfect,' Salcines [one of the farm operators] said. 'But if you look at what capitalism has done for other countries in the region, I believe that the situation for poor people is better in Cuba. Our society is more equal.'"

Is the USA 'in the region'? Capitalism has worked a hell of a lot better for people here than communism in Cuba.

"[The] sense of cooperation -- along with the free meals for the workers -- added to the heady sense of idealism, the sort of socialist idealism that has earned Cuba many international supporters over the years, despite Castro's dictatorial rule and his repression of political dissent."

Yeah, if you ignore the oppression and mass poverty, there's really a lot to love about Cuba.

Buncombe concludes this way: "On a lawn overlooking the ocean, I paid the equivalent of an ordinary Cuban's weekly wage for a mojito. It tasted great, but it didn't taste of the revolution."

What a shame, Andrew.

Can't Buncombe see the irony? He's just written an article extolling the wonders of Cuban communism and arguing that it really works better than free markets. Then he lets drop that a typical Cuban would have to work for a week to buy one drink. What explains people like Buncombe, and why would the P-I possibly have let him waste a drop of their cyber-ink?

UPDATE:  Author Buncombe has emailed a response, asking that it be posted:

The piece was one of several I wrote when I was in Cuba two weeks ago.

Others examined the reaction of Cubans to Castro’s surgery and another, shorter piece was an interview with a leading dissident that made clear Castro’s brutal suppression of political dissidents and the fact that even opening your mouth in Cuba to express a centrist position is enough to get you arrested and jailed for more than 20 years. You can find those pieces on the links below.

In the piece you write about, I certainly didn’t intend to “extol” the virtues of Cuban agriculture or of Castro or of his regime. But I think it was worth investigating because it represents a different way of organising food production than has been adopted in the rest of the world.

Furthermore, given the fact that the Cuban economy was totally dependent on the Soviets for so long, I think the establishment of a largely self-sustaining system within 10 years counts as an achievement. They have also done it without ploughing entire prairies, pouring millions of gallons of fertiliser into the soil and threatening water supplies.

You also claim that Laura Enriquez, from dreaded Berkeley, “thinks communism beats the free market”. She did not say anything of the sort and I don’t quote her as saying that. She is pointing out simply that other countries in Latin America have taken very different paths in terms of food production. She thinks it is remarkable that small farmers have been prioritised in Cuba whereas in countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras, etc, small farmers have been marginalised. [Indeed, they’ve been marginalised in the UK and the US as well.] But she certainly was not making a value judgement about Cuban agriculture, and neither was I - although you accuse me of “arguing that it really works better than free markets”. (Where do I argue that?) .

As to whether the poor are better off in Cuba or the US or in another country I would say is open to some debate. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in Cuba because I wouldn’t want to live in such a repressive society and as one of your commentators said, just look at the number of people trying to get out of Cuba.

That being said I don’t think the situation is entirely black and white. By certain standards you could argue that the poor in Cuba are better off that in a lot of other countries. The average life expectancy in Cuba is 77, the same as in the US, and higher than in the rest of Latin America with the exception of Costa Rica. It’s child mortality rate is lower than in the US and lower too than in every country in Latin America. Health care and education are free, which certainly can’t be said for the US. [These figures are all from the World Bank.]

The quote from Salcines, the head of the urban farm, about Cuban society being fairer was in reference to other developing countries in the region, rather than the US. I don’t have any way of measuring how “equal” Cuban society is. But there are plenty of statistics that suggest the US is extremely unequal, with one of the highest gini coefficients – the statistical tool to measure such a divide – in the developed world. [It’s around 46 in the US.]

You also fail to mention the very strange policy of the US towards Cuba over the years, a policy that has helped cement his support inside Cuba and probably prolonged his regime. If the US really wanted to get rid of the Castro regime – rather than simply securing political support amongst exiles in the politically-vital state of Florida – why not simply lift the trade embargo? How long would Castro last once Coca Cola and Wal-Mart were established?

You finish the piece by accusing me of “missing the irony” of being able to pay for a drink in a swanky hotel that ordinary Cubans cannot afford. In reality I didn’t miss the irony at all; indeed I  went to that hotel to highlight the gulf that exists between Cubans and foreign tourists, not to be blinded to it.

On a final note I don’t want to make generalisations about people’s grasp of irony, but let’s just say the British and the US have a different sense of humour. The very first sentence of my piece, which you see as a celebration of Castro’s agriculture, is very clearly intended to be sarcastic. The clue to this are the phrases “revolutionary lettuce” and “revolutionary tomatoes”.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it clearer for you.

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