Sunday, March 19, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Day 6): Reflections on a Week Long Penn State Graduate Course in Cuba

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is my great privilege to have been encouraged to design and hold a week long embedded course program through Pennsylvania State University. My thanks to the office of the Penn State Office of the Vice Provost for Global Prgrams, Michael Adewumi and Kate Manni, Assistant Director for Embedded Programs, for making this possible.  Thanks as well to  Scott Gartner, the Director, Penn State School of International Affairs, and special thanks to Claudia Prieto (SIA Academic Adviser and Student Services Coordinator) and Rachel Arnold (Assistant to the Financial Officer, Penn State Law/SIA), without whose help and encouragement this program would not have happened. Great thanks as well to our hosts in Cuba, the Centro de Estudios Martianos that went out of its way to enrich the course and the experiences of our students.

This is the first of a series of posts that will develop reflections both on the teaching of embedded programs in Cuba, generally, but more specifically as a way of documenting the way my students and see see Cuba today.  For many years Cuba and its political order was said to be on the "cusp of change" (e.g., here).  Since the start of normalization of relations with the United States, it is quite evident that Cuba has now moved beyond the "cusp" and into the realities of integration within a global system to which it has had both privileged access and been excluded over the last half century.  The re-adjustments in both respects will mark the trajectory of Cuban life for the next generation (compare here, with here).

I started with the embedded course syllabus (INTAF 597C Penn State SIA) and then will post reflections for each day of the journey through the course materials and within Cuba.  The hope is that this provides some food for thought respecting the necessary evolution of political and economic systems, and the constraints within which systems change or expend great energy to stay the same.

Links for full contents HERE.

This post considers our activities on Day 6--Visit to the Organopónico de Alamar.

Day six of our program provided a nice change of pace. The class visited the Organopónico de Alamar. The Mission of the Organopónico, along with other information has been usefully described in a website: 
designed, developed and produced by six students in Elon University’s Interactive Media master’s program over three weeks in January 2013. The students, under the advisement of Professor Randy Piland, visited Organopónico Vivero Alamar and collected photos, videos and information. This website is not maintained by anyone in connection with Vivero Alamar and is meant only to serve as an educational reference. For more information about our experience working on this project, please look at our blog.
The Elon student English language web site explains:
The mission and vision of Organopónico Vivero Alamar is to be a cooperative farm, focusing on agricultural production and services. Dedicated to professionalism, honesty, immediacy, discipline, hospitality and the shared values of commitment to the country and to the individual, Vivero Alamar strives to be a national and global leader in sustainable agriculture.

Organopónico Vivero Alamar contributes to the needs of people, offering a wide range of vegetables, ornamental and medicinal plants, and other food products. Vivero Alamar also provides community services, applies innovations in science and technology to the farm, and provides technical assistance and training to those interested at the local, national, and international level.
See also HERE. The website also provides a helpful summary of its history.
Vivero Alamar is a farm located in Alamar, a large barrio (public housing project) just outside of Havana, Cuba. Founded in 1997 by Miguel Salcines, a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture, along with three others, the farm developed as a way to feed the surrounding neighborhood. Vivero Alamar is just one of many organopónicos (organic urban farms) that have emerged since the early 1990s. It has become one of the most well-known such farms, both in Cuba and around the world. Originally an 800 square meter (8611 square foot) vegetable garden, the farm has grown to over 25 acres and includes animals, fruits, herbs and value-added products like vinegars and spices. It also employs over 160 people.

Vivero Alamar sells its produce to nearly 50,000 people every year. Prior to its existence, fresh produce was much more difficult to obtain. Today, the farm plants three million seedlings and harvests 300 tons of vegetables annually.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary economic partner, the country struggled to reinvent itself. Without an outside source to provide farm equipment, tools, fertilizer or chemicals, the country’s farms became organic by default. Cubans embraced this new way of farming. Today, organopónicos like Vivero Alamar are completely sustainable and organic. They are constantly innovating and finding ways to nurture and harvest crops to provide nutritious, fresh food to their communities. Very little Vivero Alamar does is outsourced, and the farm takes recycling and reusing seriously, with everything having a specific purpose. The world is starting to take notice, and it is looking to Cuba for the future of farming and food.
It appears to be very popular as a site for tourists to experience (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here) the movement within Cuba of sustainable organic urban farming that has had some success in feeding local communities and supplying local markets with their excess production. It has thus broadened its scope to include a more direct connection to the tourist sector on which Cuba generally, and central Havana more specifically, increasingly rely for income.

Our tour began with a briefing by one of the more senior members of the cooperative.  He was quite informative and was able to discuss the way in which the cooperative was established and then transformed as the historical context changed around it.  The food cooperative was born of necessity--the Special Period  left Cuba with a critical food shortage and neither cash nor a foreign power mentor, to make up for the deficits that were revealed with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The cooperative served as a nexus of several factors that could be harmonized with the ruling ideology: (1) development of the productive forces on the island (unused land and un- and underemployed locals), (2) a focus on aggregation of labor (labor collectivity) rather than capital collectivity (which remains the sole province of the state); (3) a connection at the local level between local needs and local productive capacity; and (4) resource conservation (local food production at a time when even inter-state agricultural product distribution became difficult for lack of transport and fuel). The initial experiment proved successful enough.  It was small enough to be well managed.  It served local needs so that it might not pose national or regional issues of planning.  It alleviated the need for feul consumption.  And it provided its workers with payment in kind (food) plus the possibility of earning enough extra to secure a minimally satisfactory standard of living.  That later, of course, was critical to the social stability necessary to continue to preserve the ruling ideology in the face of external (and potentially internal) threat.

Since the start of the present century, as conditions on the Island improved, the objectives and focus of the creative has changed as well. The social dimension of cooperative local agriculture remains prominent. "In fact, not only does it offer steady employment, workers are often given fresh produce to take home with them and the market attached to the farm offers fair prices compared to others. Aside from agriculture, the farm offers its workers interest free loans, haircuts and various human resource opportunities." (HERE) The coop also sells its food at discount to local hospitals and schools (HERE). The cooperative, then, is as much a necessary instrument of socialization and social management, as it is a source of necessary foodstuffs. The cooperative runs programs for local children and others. These enhance social integration and promotes stability. Moreover, the variety of crops grown has also broadened to include income crops--especially medicinal plants. These serve the community, of course, but they also provide additional income and some positive effects beyond the immediate community serviced by the cooperative. More importantly, as a blending of social and agricultural objectives, the cooperative has also branched out into the business-service of providing plants necessary for spiritual needs--both to the Santería community and others who need plants with spiritual value or for use in religious or spiritual rituals.

´More importantly, perhaps, the local agricultural cooperatives, have now branched out into "export" production and, especially near sites of tourist sector activities, are now augmenting income by selling excess production to the hotels and restaurants that service the foreign tourist sector.  With respect to the first, the cooperatives have capitalized on their organic methods.  There is irony here.  The initial objective was not to promote organic--it was a necessary made unavoidable during the Special Period when these food cooperatives could not afford expensive chemical fertilizers or pesticides. With respect to the first, the coop has produced compost mostly from worms originally imported from California and Africa. With respect to the second, the coop now sells its produce and other products to local hotels ans restaurants. Most sales are not made directly, but rather through the Agricultural ministries (HERE).  The coop also now hosts others seeking to replicate its methods and operations throughout Cuba. (See e.g., here).

At the same time, the cooperative is a business.  It has a core of full time members, whose pay is tied to seniority.  But it also employs a large number of seasonal workers.  To make that work, the coop must strategically apply the new cooperative laws enacted since the 2011 reforms.  Those regulations permit cooperatives to hire provisional workers for up to three months at which point they must be terminated or they become permanent members of the coop (see, e.g., HERE).  As a consequence the core coop members are augmented, especially during peak labor period with temprary workers form the neighborhood (HERE).

The coop also relies on outside funding and capacity building organizations for support.  This was especially true during its initial development when it sought and obtained help from national and German civil society  and public organizations.   "La cooperativa "Organopónico Vivero Alamar" desde hace casi diez años trabaja en estrecha colaboración con la ONG Agro Acción Alemana y las contrapartes cubanas, la Asociación Cubana de Producción Animal (ACPA) y la Asociación Cubana de Técnicos Agrícolas y Forestales (ACTAF). Estas organizaciones han apoyado, con recursos y financiamiento, la construcción de un invernadero para la producción de vegetales y su comercialización parcial en divisas, un aula de capacitación para los miembros de la cooperativa y el intercambio de experiencias con otros productores y cooperativas, diferentes sistemas de riegos eficientes para el cultivo de hortalizas y la producción de humus y compost, entre otras acciones concretas de ayuda y colaboración necesaria. " (HERE) (The "Organopónico Vivero Alamar" cooperative has worked closely with Agro Acción Alemana and Cuban counterparts, the Cuban Association of Animal Production (ACPA) and the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) for nearly ten years. These organizations have supported, with resources and financing, the construction of a greenhouse for the production of vegetables and their partial marketing in foreign currency, a training room for members of the cooperative and the exchange of experiences with other producers and cooperatives, different systems of efficient irrigation for the cultivation of vegetables and the production of humus and compost, among other concrete actions of aid and necessary collaboration.) On the German civil society contribution see  also HERE.

Today, the tourist sector also provides a source of support.  Guiding tourists eager to learn about organic farming and the history of Cuban urban agriculture provides tourists with a diversion and the coop with income.  A fair trade I suspect. But one also wonders--how healthy is this sort of tourism for its objects.  In one sense it is quite useful--providing a steady source of income merely by welcoming the curious into the coop's "home" for short, and by now well orchestrated, visits.  But on  the other hand, to the extent that tourism now serves as an income anchor one has to wonder about the distorting effect it might have on the future of agricultural production and the social programs of the coop. To some extent such visits, to the extent they are lucrative enough, can also serve as a trap.  The coop might easily become  a hostage to the expectations of tourists to see something.  That is, tourists expect a "show" that lives up to their need for consuming "experience." To the extent that the coop provides such experience, and to the extent that this experience has already been constricted, it may be difficult for the coop to change its operations in ways that disappoint tourists and that might threaten tourist visit income. In the worst case the coop becomes a specimen, a circus act, in the global circus that is international experience tourism. The coop dies as a vibrant social institution and re-emerges as a sideshow to a week long vacation for the consumption of tourists.  That is a trap that one can only hope the coop might be able to avoid.  Otherwise the coop will become an artifact and not a living part of the social fabric of the community. There is a very thin line between the valuable practice of opening one's doors to the curious and to widen understanding and networks, and transformation of  the object of a coop from the production of food to the satisfaction of tourists.

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