Agroecology and the Survival of Cuban Socialism

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Aidan Ratchford / October 16, 2021
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was forced to embarked on an agroecological programme of food sovereignty. Now, it offers an example to the rest of the world. 5925 words / 24 min read

Photo: Crop beds at Alamar organic farm outside of Havana, Cuba by Sam Holt

As the Cuban revolution enters its 63rd year, the island encounters several important crossroads. The 2019 constitution restructured the political, economic, and environmental strategies of the country, while emphatically reaffirming the objective of progressing to a communist society.1 Environmental protection and a commitment to tackling climate change were added for the first time, and a decentralisation of government aims to enhance popular participation and efficiency.2 Meanwhile, with Raul Castro’s leadership now at an end, a new generation of Cubans take up the mantle of preserving the nation’s revolutionary principles.

Social media has opened new and intensified possibilities for the incessant aggression from the exile community 90 miles away in Florida, while Cuban medical internationalism has gained worldwide recognition for its solidarity in helping countries to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And according to leading economic historian of Cuba, Helen Yaffe, former US President Trump’s introduction of 90 new sanctions near the end of his term resulted in a loss of $US 5 billion, the biggest annual cost of the blockade for Cuba since its inception in 1962.

The current situation is constituted then by a set of long-standing contradictions and pressures, and attempts to resolve these in a socialist direction. In the midst of these contradictions, Cuba has undertaken an agricultural revolution — an ecological movement touted as a potential model for the future we all face in the impending threat of the climate crisis. What are the historical factors behind this movement? What are its implications for genuine Cuban sovereignty? And how can we explain its relationship to Cuban socialism? In order to understand the agricultural transformation in Cuba, it is essential to look at the historical context of the island, beginning with a topic integral to its history.

Cuba has undertaken an agricultural revolution — an ecological movement touted as a potential model for the future we all face in the impending threat of the climate crisis.

Cuba is Sugar

“Si no hay azúcar, no hay país”
(“If there is no sugar, there is no nation”)

Cuban history is inseparable from the production and export of sugar, both during 400 years of colonial rule by Spain, and over 60 years of semi-colonial rule by the United States. However, the history of sugar in Cuba, and indeed Cuba itself, has largely been a history of imperialist exploitation - a history of underdevelopment. Before the 1959 revolution, the Cuban economy was characterised by a mono-crop reliance on sugar, a lack of technical knowledge, underused land, and underemployed labour. The island was completely dependent on a sole trading partner who dictated the terms of trade, and was vulnerable to volatile changes in international sugar prices. The US monopoly on Cuban trade was accompanied by an extremely uneven land ownership, foreign control of utilities and industries, chronic economic stagnation, and a devastatingly low standard of living.

For decades US capital had flowed into Cuba, and by the 1920s Cuba produced a fifth of all sugar consumed in the world.3 By 1927, US companies controlled over 70 per cent of sugar production on the island.4 The sugar boom of the first two decades of the 20th Century was caused by rising consumption levels in the US, the post-war slump in european beet production, and the injection of capital and labour into Cuban sugar production, leading in turn to a boom in the construction of sugar mills and railroads to connect them.5 From 1920, however, and culminating with the Great Depression at the end of the decade, sugar prices collapsed and production with it, and by 1931 the value of Cuba’s sugar output was just one-tenth of the prosperous, post-war period.6

With an overproduction crisis in sugar, US capital then poured into public utilities, oil refining, and manufacturing, and before 1959 ‘US investors controlled 90% of the telephone and electric services, 50% of public service railways and 40% of raw sugar production’.7 Indeed, economist Dudley Seers writes that pre-revolutionary Cuba had essentially been made an “appendage” of the US economy.8 Despite sugar mills moving increasingly into Cuban ownership by the 1950s, the production of sugar remained characterised by underemployment and technological deficiency. Unemployment and low wages were ubiquitous, processing and finishing activities resided largely under foreign control, and the US imposed physical limits on the entry of refined sugar to the US market.9 And, crucially, Washington retained control of the Cuban sugar quota - consolidating its semi-colonial control over the island and disincentivizing investment, contributing to its stagnation.

Thus an important aspect of Cuban underdevelopment was the island’s lack of industrialisation. The increasing subordinate integration of Cuba into the US economic orbit was strengthened by trade deals which offered the island (limited) privileged access to US markets in exchange for increased export of US capital to Cuba. This led to an intensification of the US monopoly on Cuban production and industries, and also made industrialisation and agricultural diversification near impossible for Cuba.

Cuba’s economy in the 20th Century (before the Revolution) was therefore increasingly tied to the US economy, and the over-reliance on both imports from and exports to the US resulted in a cycle of dependency, as described by Jean-Paul Sartre: “the Cubans received dollars for their sugar, but they had to give them back to the US to pay for manufactured products”.10 It’s worth noting that Sartre as an enthusiastic visitor following the revolution was here both expressing his own observations and articulating for a foreign audience the line of the revolutionary leadership. This phenomenon was characteristic of an underdeveloped economy — US imperialism ensured that industrialisation was unattainable, and the island would therefore remain dependent on imports of basic machinery and foodstuffs. Additionally, this system of dependence resulted in a decades-long deterioration in the terms of trade, causing a loss of purchasing power for Cuba and consolidating its underdevelopment.

"Reliance on imports from and exports to the US resulted in a cycle of dependency, as described by Sartre: “the Cubans received dollars for their sugar, but they had to give them back to the US to pay for manufactured products”"

Lastly, sugar production in Cuba was labour-intensive, and heavily associated with racism, slavery, and imperialism.11 Aside from landowning and foreign elites, and the consumerist hub of Havana, the island was characterised by “conditions of backwardness, hunger, and poverty”.12

The challenge for the new leadership was therefore necessarily an anti-imperialist one; the revolutionaries knew well that any attempts at economic and social development had thus far been made impossible by the US stranglehold on the island. It was necessary for Cuba to both break the “vicious circle of foreign indebtedness”13 that had been perpetuated by capital inflows and loans made on onerous terms, as well as demolish the structural inequalities in land ownership and employment. The new leaders were aware that Cuba’s challenge of development was in contradiction with its existing (semi-colonial) relationship with the US; that any attempts to break this appendage, and to strive towards genuine independence, would be met only with aggression. They understood that Cuba, and indeed all underdeveloped countries, had just two options: dependence or revolution.

The Special Period and the end of azucarocracia?

When agricultural diversification proved difficult to achieve, the policy was abandoned in favor of increased sugar production — now for export to the socialist bloc. But while the island’s mono-crop, export-oriented economy was seen as anatomical to the nation’s structural underdevelopment, the nature of sugar production was much changed. Vast agrarian reforms were carried out to address long-standing inequalities in ownership and social structures, while all sugar mills, banks, nearly half of all land, and over 80% of industry were appropriated for state ownership.14 Furthermore, measures were taken to improve rampant illiteracy and low incomes, eradicate sustained and seasonal unemployment, and invest heavily in health and education.

The nature of Cuba’s economy had been dramatically transformed despite still largely remaining a mono-crop exporter. For example, the means of production were now owned by Cubans themselves, and the establishment of trade deals with the socialist bloc were made on Cuba’s terms, with the explicit objective of countering a deterioration in the terms of trade.15 Sugar profits were therefore no longer lining the pockets of exploitative landowners and foreign elites, but were instead being socially invested in ambitious development programs, as well as being used to import machinery, equipment, and technical assistance.16 Moreover, the transformation in the way workers could now satisfy their needs cannot be understated; by 1961 basic illiteracy had been eradicated,17 and nationalised land distributed amongst landless workers and into cooperatives. Within a year of the revolution, 37 new free schools were built and workers encouraged to attend,18 while unemployment, one of the most serious issues facing Cuba before the revolution — particularly in rural areas — was eradicated in its overt form.19

"After 1959, sugar profits no longer lined the pockets of landowners and foreign elites, but were instead socially invested in ambitious development programs, as well as used to import machinery, equipment, and technical assistance."

Additionally, the import of luxury goods - a trait typical of underdeveloped economies and antithetical to development - was prohibited. The contrast between Havana as a playground for the rich and the new Cuba was striking. The effects here were both ideological - a concrete demonstration of socialist egalitarianism, a refusal of privileges by the new socialist leadership - and economic, a shift from profits being squandered on imports and the luxury of the rich towards various forms of socially useful investment. Luxury goods then are a symptom (a lack of potentially profitable outlets for capital in the colonised economy) and a cause (drawing resources away from workers’ wages and socially useful investments) of underdevelopment and colonial dependence. In 1912, for example, consumer goods constituted 70% of total imports.20 Despite a huge exodus of professionals, and immediate acts of sabotage both internally and externally, a complete transformation in the agrarian, urban, educational, and industrial make up of Cuba was undertaken. Economic planning was centralised, and any surplus capital from production was now allocated to areas of the Cuban economy according to its needs. As put by Max Nolff, Cuba’s central planning budget was “in effect an instrument of redistribution of the financial resources of the country”.21

As such, criticisms that Cuba passed from dependence on the US to dependence on the Soviet Union are far from accurate. Cuba’s economy had changed from one dominated by US imperialism to one based on the fundamentals of mutual socialist aid and national development, and the nature of Cuban sugar production had ceased to be exploitative, and instead became central to both national sovereignty and food security in the face of US economic aggression.

While this represented an end to capitalist exploitation within Cuba, the island remained dependent on food imports as its agriculture was almost entirely oriented towards export, and principally to the socialist bloc. As such, although Cuba had broken the chains of imperialism, and had secured for the first time food security, it had not achieved food sovereignty. Having adopted the practices of the ‘Green Revolution’, Cuba’s agriculture by the 1980s was “the most industrialised in Latin America, using more fertiliser proportionally than the United States”.22 The vast majority of the agrochemicals, pesticides, fuel, and machinery required for the country’s agricultural practices was imported from the socialist bloc, and employed predominantly on state farms. And then the crisis hit.

Although Cuba had broken the chains of imperialism, and had secured for the first time food security, it had not achieved food sovereignty.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the concomitant dismantling of CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), had disastrous impacts on Cuba - a country which relied heavily on the political and economic support of the socialist bloc. Furthermore, the US blockade was tightened, and as a result of these phenomena Cuba lost 85% of its trade within just three years. GDP fell dramatically, as did imports of foodstuffs, pesticides, and machinery. By 1993, the worst year of the ‘Special Period’, sugar production had halved, and continued to decline.

By the end of the 1990s, half of the island’s sugar refineries had been closed down. Azucarocracia had ended, but so had the island’s food security. Faced with economic isolation, an unworkable and obsolete agriculture, and the very real threat of widespread hunger, the survival of the Cuban revolution (and indeed of the Cuban people) was in palpable danger. This survival, and its continuation well into the 21st Century, is in large part a result of a complete overhaul of Cuban agriculture - and an ecological movement which has made Cuba the world’s largest real life model for socialist ‘degrowth’.

The Agroecological Revolution

By the mid-1990s, a major restructuring of state-owned land had begun to occur. Over half of state-owned arable land was redistributed, mainly into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), and hundreds of thousands of Cubans were given land in usufruct - it remained property of the state, but crucially the means of production were owned by members of the cooperatives. As Yaffe explains, such land reforms and redistributive measures were entirely motivated by responding to the crisis of food scarcity; foreign capital remained limited to only the state sector, and, importantly, the cooperatives retained an inherent ‘social character’. This meant that the state maintained regulatory control over employment and inputs, preventing external interests and exploitation.23 In 1994 private farmers’ markets were (reluctantly) introduced, and by the following year accounted for the sale of a fifth of all agricultural products on the island.24

Meanwhile, the state worked quickly to mobilise scientific research and technical knowledge, and oversee a vast decentralisation of production, in order to move from a once highly mechanised, sugar export-oriented agriculture to a largely organic, small-scale system of food production. As Boillat, Gerber and Funes-Monzote argue:

Technical innovations included the production of biological pest controls and biofertilizers, the promotion of the use of renewable energy like biogas, and the development of livestock production based on protein-rich legumes and their integration in agroforestry systems. Moreover, traditional techniques were rediscovered and further developed, including the use of animal traction, crop rotation, genetic diversification, and the conversion of specialized farms to mixed farming.

These innovations were central to Cuba surviving an extreme crisis of food scarcity. From the depths of economic and agricultural collapse, the island undertook a major transformation of land and authority, embracing agroecological methods, redistributing state-owned farms, opening cooperatives, and supporting the Cuban people’s creative, horizontal-led innovations in food production. Two initiatives key to the survival of Cuban socialism and the path towards food sovereignty are the Campesino a Campesino movement, and the urban agricultural movement that has turned Havana’s vacant lots and building sites into green, productive gardens.

Organopónicos: The Cuban Invention

The transformation from large-scale, industrialised agriculture to small-scale, organic, food-oriented production was indeed a reaction to the loss of imports from the Soviet Union. However, Cuban research institutes had been preparing for such a possibility for years, with the threat of a total blockade of the island ever-present. Research was driven towards import-substitution policies, and alternative methods of production not reliant on fertiliser and pesticides. By 1987, several years before the Soviet collapse, armed forces facilities had begun installing organopónicos, a Cuban invention. This is an essential point - the Cuban leadership were well aware of the threat of total isolation, and therefore food scarcity, and had the capacity to mobilise scientific resources towards organic food production. Despite its obvious dependence on the Soviet Union, Cuba actively pursued alternative methods of development and strived towards food sovereignty, without which the preservation of the revolution today may not have been possible.

Additionally, ‘Green Revolution’ practices, with their intrinsic soil degradation and diminishing water resources, are today seeing a collapse in productivity. The radical shift in Cuban agriculture, intended largely as a survival strategy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has also meant that Cuba has transitioned away from the post-Green Revolution model of agriculture at exactly the point its model of organising nature is becoming exhausted. As Jason W. Moore argues, by 2002 the era of “Cheap Food” had substantially unravelled.25 The appropriation of aquifers - cheap energy for fertilisers 26 that had countered capitalism’s general tendency (Marx) to exhaust the soil, thus securing substantial productivity improvements in agriculture - became progressively harder. Moreover, we now see what Moore describes as the “superweed effect”, with weeds evolving rapidly to survive the herbicides fundamental to capitalist agriculture’s GM “biotech revolution”.27

"The radical shift in Cuban agriculture has meant that Cuba has transitioned away from the post-Green Revolution model of agriculture at exactly the point its model of organising nature is becoming exhausted."

We could add to the manifold crisis of capitalist agriculture, bee colony collapse, that is the collapse of the “fully industrialised hive model”, (bees not being able to evolve as rapidly as weeds can with herbicides to survive insecticides)28. Even The Economist has noted that, unlike the rest of the world, “it is good to be a bee in Cuba”, putting this down to “agricultural backwardness”, but given the collapse of capitalism’s “cheap food model”, contrasted with Cuba’s ability to feed its people, and the particular kinds of knowledge involved in and developed in the Cuban agroecological revolution, what does “backwardness” mean here? Not only has organic honey become a key export for the island but more widely Cuba has developed agroecological practices which produce high yields and are far better in their environmental impact.

The organopónico has been a horticultural revelation. Using organic substrate, drip irrigation, and horticultural practices, these raised beds can be implemented on urban wasteland, and, without the use of any petrochemicals, have the dual benefit of local, urban participation, and diverse, healthy food production.29 From 1997 to 2005, vegetable production in Havana increased by over 1200%; by 2013, urban farmers in Havana alone were producing over 60,000 tonnes of vegetables and 1,700 tonnes of meat each year using this method. Beans, cucumber, beets, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, and more are produced organically on former decrepit, sloping, or abandoned urban land. Along with minimal transportation and chemical costs, organopónico cooperatives improve community relationships, increase employment, and, crucially, sell a healthy range of food locally and at accessible prices.

The organopónicos bring highly productive yields, which have increased since the first civilian plot was introduced in the capital in 1991. Ecologically beneficial, this movement has not only brought about greener cities, it has also presented an opportunity for Cuba to meet all of its food needs, if it continues to grow throughout the island’s urban areas. Indeed, the organopónico led researcher Sinand Koont to declare that Cuba has “infinite possibilities”. By 2013, there were nearly a hundred productive organopónicos in Havana, producing a variety of vegetables grown, sold to, and consumed by the city’s residents. Perhaps the best example is the organopónico Vivero Alamar, a cooperative several miles east of the city centre. First started in the 1990s by five former state employees on abandoned wasteland, it today employs over 180 Cubans and produces over 300 tonnes of organic vegetables for Havana each year. Importantly, this method of urban farming has enhanced community participation, encouraged the involvement of young people in food production and sustainability, provided healthy, diverse vegetables for urban residents, and brought about a mass urban reforestation on the island.30

Furthermore, the movement has continued to gain traction and has seen Cubans convert balconies and rooftops into small organopónicos, strengthening community engagement and encouraging participation, as well as decreasing city reliance on rural production.31 And this raises an important point regarding the city and the countryside. Before 1959 the economic and social divide between urban and rural Cuba was staggering; while Havana prospered (for some), only 3% of rural Cubans owned the land they worked on, 2% had running water, and high levels of illiteracy and poverty were accompanied by a life expectancy of just 59 years.32 The revolutionary government addressed this divide - undertaking extensive and ambitious social and educational programs - and provided rural Cuba with schools, medical centres, houses, and roads.33 Illiteracy was eradicated, while further social programmes drastically improved the health and living standards of the Cuban countryside population, eradicating diseases, reducing poverty, and improving working conditions.

The urban-rural divide was therefore largely addressed, although naturally some contradictions remained (though an exploration of them is beyond the scope of this piece). But the last 30 years in Cuba, and specifically the movement of urban agricultural production, bring to mind an important question: is Cuba, albeit through necessity, on the path to resolving the contradictions between the city and the countryside? According to Marx, “the abolition of the antagonism between town and country is one of the first conditions of communal life”.

The last 30 years in Cuba, and specifically the movement of urban agricultural production, bring to mind an important question: is Cuba on the path to resolving the contradictions between the city and the countryside?

The Marxist tradition, its productivism, its necessary roots in theory and often in practice in the industrial proletariat, has tended to miss or obfuscate the centrality of the overcoming of the oppression and exploitation of the rural by the urban, and Marx and Engels’s critique of the wrecking of the countryside for the sake of accumulation in the cities. However, it is central, as Raymond Williams notes, that “the contrast of country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of…the crises of our society.”34 Moreover, as Engels argues in The Housing Question, the contradiction between city and country is a major factor in the grimness of life in the capitalist city. As a response to external pressures, and in the challenge of meeting the needs of its citizens, Cuba’s urban spaces have become green areas of community participation, sustainability, and food sovereignty. Urban reliance on rural production (and on rural exploitation, certainly before 1959) has been drastically reduced, and urban farming has seen a small boom in employment, particularly for women and young workers.

Whilst recognising that Cuban urban production has largely been a response to external pressures and the threat of food scarcity, it is hard to deny that the revolutionary island is pursuing a model which could shatter the antagonism between town and country. Indeed, by placing the needs of the people at its core, and emphasising ecological practices as integral to production, Cubans have achieved large-scale experiences of communal, meaningful production, reliant on scientific and traditional knowledge, purposeful work, and mutual aid. In many ways, the urban farming movement in Cuba represents an achievement that, for the left, has only ever really been imagined elsewhere.

By placing the needs of the people at its core, and emphasising ecological practices as integral to production, Cubans have achieved large-scale experiences of communal, meaningful production.

The Farmer to Farmer Movement

"Producir aprendiendo; enseñar produciendo y aprender enseñando" (Produce while learning, teach while producing, and learn while teaching)

In 1997, ANAP (National Association of Small Farmers) members initiated the Farmer to Farmer Agroecology Movement (MACAC). The aim was for small farmers to share knowledge with each other, and integrate new, sustainable systems of agriculture. Through social participation, mobilising local resources, and reverting to traditional peasant know-how, MACAC represents a grassroots initiative relying on horizontal learning. Similar to movements across Central America inspired by Paulo Freire, Cuba’s MACAC has grown into the largest experiment of farmer to farmer pedagogy in the world, involving some 200,000 small farmer families by 2018.

The movement has been a resounding success for several reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it has contributed to cases of genuine food sovereignty in Cuba, with many small farmers producing 80-100% of food necessary for family consumption by 2011. A cooperative in Jagüey Grande, for example, produces 80% of food needs for the 60,000 residents of its municipality.35 Small farmers have been absolutely critical to Cuba averting a major food crisis and heading towards food sovereignty; by 2006, the peasant sector provided two-thirds of the island’s food, despite controlling only 25% of arable land. This dramatic increase in food production came despite over 80% of agricultural land being organic, and a 95% reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

Secondly, though one of many transformations towards agroecology, the Farmer to Farmer Movement in Cuba has brought numerous environmental benefits; it has been shown to restore soil health, reduce carbon emissions, and increase resilience to climate change. Indeed, the methods employed by MACAC help to prevent erosion and landslides, and are better able to respond to hurricanes than former, largely monoculture farm.

Additionally, Cuba’s development of agroecological practices, particularly in the form of Farmer to Farmer pedagogy, has helped Cuba become a leading proponent of food sovereignty in Latin America, promoting similar initiatives in Venezuela and holding central roles in transnational peasant organisations such as La Vía Campesina.36 According to Gürcan, this leading role has also helped Cuba diversify its trade through the ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) — a highly valuable feat for a country facing such economic isolation. Importantly, Cuba’s shift towards agroecology therefore offers multiple advantages in terms of environmental protection, food sovereignty, and even in its (limited) international trade.

The agroecological movement, through a combination of urban innovation, rural, peasant-led, participation, and a population working to produce organic food in the face of external aggression, has been crucial to Cuba’s survival. The island has undergone an agricultural revolution within the revolution. However, not only has this been important for its path towards food sovereignty, but it has also demonstrated that a large-scale, genuine example of green, sustainable production is possible. Despite a monumental drop in imports and use of fertiliser, fuel, and machinery, Cuba by 2013 was consuming more vegetables per capita than the world average, and considerably more than the United States and the average for the Americas.

By 2000, Cuba’s daily supply of calories had regained the same levels as before the Special Period, and it has continued to steadily rise. As of 2013 (the last available figures), the island’s caloric supply is higher than the average for both the world and the Americas. Challenges to sustained food sovereignty remain, but while figures concerning Cuban food imports are misguided (the overwhelming majority of food imports are directed towards sustaining the Cuban tourism sector), there is no doubt that these movements present genuine alternatives to mechanised, environmentally degrading, and exploitative agriculture.

Cuban Socialism and Socialist Degrowth

Cuba’s success in sustainability is one of many reasons the revolution has survived - against overwhelming odds in the form of a severe economic blockade. And while it has been a direct response to the loss of trade incurred by the collapse of the Soviet Union, this tells only part of the story. The relationship between agroecology and Cuban socialism is a dialectical one; the socialist character of the Cuban revolution facilitated the agricultural transformation, and that in turn has reinforced the nature and principles of Cuban socialism, and, furthermore, has developed Cuban socialism in the direction of socialist degrowth.

The relationship between agroecology and Cuban socialism is dialectical; the socialist character of the Cuban revolution facilitated the agricultural transformation, and that has reinforced the principles of Cuban socialism.

Cuba’s transformation to agroecology represents the world’s largest experience of socialist degrowth. Whilst maintaining remarkable standards in education, health - and to an increasing extent, local food production - Cuba has dramatically reduced its ecological footprint, improving environmental health, increasing resilience to climate change, and drastically cutting back on harmful chemicals and pesticides. Cuba is perhaps then on the way to achieving what the capitalist mode of production can never achieve: a system of sustainable degrowth in which the material needs of its people are central. In other words, a system for which wealth has a social character, not a monetary one; and, to take this further, nature (as a source of wealth but not value within capitalism) becoming valued, and avoiding nature’s exhaustion being centred in planning.

The resilience of maintaining its socialist principles has been crucial to this experience of degrowth; only an economy which prohibits landlordism, structural inequality, and the accumulation of private wealth and means of production, can strive for genuine degrowth. In this sense degrowth as a real life experiment has necessarily a socialist character, given that the fundamental principles of capitalism are incompatible with the above. This is not to say that capitalism will not have its own “degrowth” given the threat of climate change but this “degrowth” will be the forced underconsumption of use values by the Global Poor, not Cuba’s sundering of social wealth (i.e. use values) from capitalist valuation.

Despite small market openings, the widening of the tourism sector, and increase self-employment, Cuba has not, as many western experts have eagerly predicted, begun a transition back to capitalism. Necessary concessions have indeed been made in response to the import crisis, compounded by vicious expansions of the sanctions regime through both the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. But Cuban socialism has not followed the Soviet Union, and today - despite its failings, despite its contradictions - it is perhaps the brightest example of a socialist country in the world.

There is in Cuba a deep rooted consciousness of anti-imperialism. Foreign investment, exploitation, and dependence are well understood as interrelated concepts, and the Cuban people understand clearly that sovereignty is as much a question of food production and trade terms, as it is about constitutional independence. Long before the ejército rebelde stormed into Havana in 1959, there existed a long standing identity of anti-imperialism and nationalism; a quote frequently used by ANAP members comes from 19th Century independence hero José Martí: “A people that cannot produce its own food is a people enslaved”.

The 1959 revolution — or more specifically the US reaction to it — further radicalised both the new leaders and the Cuban people. Adding to an already class-conscious movement, US acts of economic sabotage, terrorism, and a failed invasion in many ways mobilised the Cuban people and inflated a revolutionary sense of patria o muerte. As defined by Yaffe and López, “confronting US imperialism became an integral part of the Cuban political process and of citizens’ daily lives.”

It is in this context that Cuba’s agroecological transformation should be considered. The failure of outside commentators to predict the preservation of Cuban socialism stems from the misunderstanding of how integral anti-imperialism is to Cuban national memory. Rather than succumb to a ‘liberalisation’, Cubans once again collectively resisted extreme adversity, and the people, the heartbeat of agricultural transformation, have been encouraged and materially supported by the leadership. Health, education, internationalism, anti-capitalism, and self-sufficiency have been pillars of revolutionary Cuba - they are central principles of the island, and it is a well educated, conscious, creative, internationalist population which responded to the food crisis. Innovative practices, local and transnational pedagogy, scientific advances, and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to never returning to a system of exploitation of man by man37, are the reasons that Cuba survives today.

The socialist character of Cuba’s leadership, as well as and in conjunction with the determination and ingenuity of the people, has been essential to dramatically transforming the island’s agricultural outlook. It has facilitated huge land reforms, the transferring of power to more local, decentralised authorities, and, crucially, has given Cubans, rural and urban alike, the space, opportunity and encouragement to engage in the collective effort of food production. In turn, this collective effort has reinforced Cuban socialism for two reasons.

Firstly, the struggle to preserve the revolution in the face of extreme hardships, and even risk of annihilation, mirrors previous crises Cuba has had to face - and indeed mirrors the creative, defiant, and unrelenting ways they have opposed such crises.

Secondly, the agroecological movement in Cuba has reversed the alienation from nature inherent in industrialised agriculture. Urban farming, ecological practices, and farmer to farmer pedagogy represent a transformation both of relationships between people, and of their relationships to and within the rest of nature; they represent a way of organising nature that refuses the ways in which capitalism (but also some productivist versions of socialism) has organised nature and, therefore, offers a renewed connection between the worker and the labour process. Meanwhile worker participation and greater autonomy have further contributed to a collective sense of revolutionary responsibility.38

Urban farming, ecological practices, and farmer to farmer pedagogy represent a transformation both of relationships between people, and of their relationships to and within the rest of nature.

It is in this sense that Cuban socialism and agroecology have a dialectical relationship, and this is one of the best examples of why the Cuban revolution, and the Cuban people themselves, have survived into the 21st Century. When we consider Cuba’s numerous achievements in healthcare, science, education, ecology, and international solidarity - near miraculous in the context of perpetual sabotage - we are reminded that a small island in the Caribbean is the leading revolutionary guide in our world today.

  1. Helen Yaffe. 2020. We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People survived in a Post-Soviet World. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 251. 

  2. Yaffe. We Are Cuba!. p. 252. 

  3. Andrés Bianchi, Richard Jolly, Dudley Seers, Max Nolff. 1964. Cuba, the Economic and Social Revolution. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. p. 80. 

  4. Andrew MacEwan. 1981. Revolution and Economic Development in Cuba. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 13. 

  5. Bianchi, Jolly, Seers, Nolff. Cuba: the Economic and Social Revolution. A.Ritter. 1975. The Economic Development of Revolutionary Cuba: Strategy and Performance. Durham. Duke University Press. p. 18. 

  6. Bianchi, Jolly, Seers, Nolff. Cuba: the Economic and Social Revolution. p. 69. 

  7. Helen Yaffe. 2009. Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 8. 

  8. Bianchi, Jolly, Seers, Nolff. Cuba: the Economic and Social Revolution. p. 20. 

  9. James O’Connor. 1970. Origins of Socialism in Cuba. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 25. 

  10. Jean-Paul Sartre. 1961. Sartre on Cuba. New York. Ballantine Books. p. 28. 

  11. Yaffe. The Economics of Revolution. p. 172. 

  12. Ernesto Che Guevara and John Gerassi. 1968.Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Ernesto Che Guevara.. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 325. 

  13. Guevara and Gerassi. Venceremos! p. 326. 

  14. Yaffe. The Economics of Revolution. p. 28. 

  15. Yaffe. We Are Cuba! p. 23. 

  16. Bianchi, Jolly, Seers, Nolff. Cuba: the Economic and Social Revolution. p. 312. 

  17. Yaffe. The Economics of Revolution. p. 77. 

  18. Yaffe. The Economics of Revolution. p. 76. 

  19. See Ritter. The Economic Development of Revolutionary Cuba

  20. O’Connor. Origins of Socialism in Cuba. p. 14. 

  21. Bianchi, Jolly, Seers, Nolff. Cuba: the Economic and Social Revolution. p. 311. 

  22. Yaffe. We Are Cuba! p. 60. 

  23. Yaffe. We Are Cuba!. p. 46. 

  24. Yaffe. We Are Cuba!. p. 47. 

  25. Jason W. Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso. p. 255. 

  26. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life. p. 265. 

  27. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life p. 283. 

  28. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life. p. 285. 

  29. See Koont and Thomas

  30. For more on the urban reforestation, see: Koont 

  31. Yaffe. We Are Cuba! p. 63. 

  32. Yaffe. The Economics of Revolution p. 8. 

  33. Ingrid Hanon. 2020. “Cuba, Agriculture and Socialist Renewal”. International Journal of Cuban Studies 12(2). p. 205. 

  34. Raymond Williams. [1973]. 2016. The Country and the City. London: Vintage. p. 415. 

  35. Hanon. “Cuba, Agriculture and Socialist Renewal”. p. 215. 

  36. Yaffe. We Are Cuba! p. 64. 

  37. The Cuban 2019 constitution reaffirms the commitment to ‘never returning to capitalism as a regime sustained by the exploitation of man by man’ as quoted in Yaffe.. We Are Cuba!. p. 251. 

  38. See Hanon. “Cuba, Agriculture and Socialist Renewal”. 


Aidan Ratchford (@AMRatchford)

Aidan Ratchford begins a PhD in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow this autumn (2021). His research interests include imperialism and underdevelopment in Cuba, and the political theory of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.