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A Visit to One of Cuba's Democratic Sugar Cane Cooperatives
by Bill Caspary, with input from Mike Howard

A Visit to One of Cuba's Democratic 
Sugar Cane Cooperatives

IIS Conference members travelled southwest from Havana to the rural town of Melena del Sur near the opposite coast, where they visited a pioneering sugar cane cooperative. The cooperative is farmed by 180 members (socios), 23 of whom are women. Governance of the cooperative, as far as we could tell, is thoroughly democratic. All members attend monthly meetings to discuss and vote on decisions about agricultural production and work organization. Officers elected for fixed terms are: president of the cooperative, technology manager, supplies manager, and head of the union (currently a woman). Officers make short term implementation decisions between meetings. David Martinez, supplies manager, told us:

  When there is a problem with the growing or harvesting, it is everyone´s problem. The thoughts of everyone go into finding a solution, which results in a better idea, while in the state enterprises, only one person, the manager, does the thinking.

Since each worker feels responsible for the success of their decisions, the ideas are carried out more effectively. Co-op members emphasized that it was the mutual support and high morale of the members that got them through the crisis following the withdrawal of support from Russia. Before 1993, technology dominated Cuban sugar cane growing, making it dependent on imported fuel, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia withdrew from the USSR´s economic agreements with Cuba, resulting in severe shortages of fuel and chemicals. A crisis in sugar cane production ensued. Output on the two state farms at Melena del Sur dropped to ten percent of the former level. Aging cane was giving lower yields and this was exascerbated by lack of inputs. The state farms were judged unable to mobilize the extraordinary effort needed to bring production back from the brink of collapse, and were divided into three “U. B. P. C.” Cooperatives (Basic Units of Cooperative Production). As such, their two distinguishing features are: first, they are run democratically, and second, the usufruct of the land belongs to the co-op´s workers (the land itself is provided by the state). Therefore excess of sales over production costs can be distributed among the members or reinvested. (Editors´ Note: UBPC co-ops are prominent now in Cuba´s agricultural sector; we believe that they all function much as the ones at Melena del Sur, i.e., in stronly democratic ways, but did not visit any of the others.)

Due to members strenuous efforts, production did recover substantially, to some 250 tons per acre, after dipping below 100. Given intensive replanting work, the officers project a target of 400 tons per acre for the year 2000. No one, however, expects to see the yield of 1000 tons per acre achieved at the peak of chemical and mechanical inputs, if only because organic fertilizer is also in short supply. On the other hand, the high cost of those inputs has been greatly reduced. The cooperative members farm 1500 hectares mostly in sugar cane, with a vegetable garden of forty hectares for the co-op members. Given restricted petroleum fuel, much tilling is done by animal traction, and cultivation by hand. Animal manure is a major source of fertilizer. With the return to labor-intensive production, the co-op had to recruit former agricultural workers who had moved to the city. The appeal of democratic self-government was a strong influence in persuading them to return to the rigors of sugar cane growing. The work of harvesting sugar cane is particularly intense, but producing cane also demands that members plant, cultivate, maintain equipment and animals, and grow food throughout the year.

The harvested sugar cane is sold to the state. A contract for a specified tonnage is drawn up at the start of the season. If more is delivered, there are profits and bonuses to distribute among the members. If less, the co-op is in debt and pays this off from the next year´s crop. The co-op does not sell on an open market where they can choose between purchasers. Since the world market for sugar is depressed, guaranteed purchases from the state are welcome. This raises the question of why the co-op does not diversify agriculturally. The co-op leaders answer that they are at liberty to change crops on some of the land, and that they would like to raise rice. This would require technology, however, which they lack the capital to acquire and the expertise to use. Given continued growing of cane, manufacture of other products than sugar is being explored. Distilling of alcohol from cane is traditional, but not feasible in commercial quantities without expensive technology.

Socios live modestly, and their labor is strenuous. The growing is not always profitable, but workers throughout Cuba are guaranteed subsistence, and the co-op also raises food of its own. In good years, profits are shared among members and are spent on such consumption items as bicycles, television sets, stereos, clothing, and housing improvements. Member satisfaction comes from the sense of control over their work and its rewards, from the feeling of solidarity in the cooperative community, and from a sense of contribution to Cuba and its revolution.

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