Freedom to be Food Secure

two cars parked outside building

The Soviet Union was about seven decades old when it collapsed in 1991. Its precise lifespan depends on whether you mark its birth by the Russian Revolution in 1917 or the legal creation of the USSR in 1922.

woman near flagEither way, that’s about the same age as today’s communist Cuba. The late Fidel Castro seized power 72 years ago, in 1959.

Fidel and his brother Raul controlled the island nation for this entire period—until this spring, when Raul finally retired.

As Cuba enters its post-Castro period, let’s hope that this oppressive regime is approaching its expiration date. The time has come for it to assume its place on “the ash-heap of history,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.

This change would be good first and foremost for the people of Cuba, who have lived for too long under tyranny—and who suffer today from severe shortages in food.

Here’s how Reuters describes the current crisis: “For more than a year Cubans have endured long waiting lines and steep price rises in their search for everything from milk, butter, chicken, and beans to rice, pasta, and cooking oil. They have scavenged for scant produce at the market and collected dwindling World War II-style food rations.”

The new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba—that’s the top political post in the country—is Miguel Diaz-Canel. He’s the first non-Castro leader to run Cuba since the communist takeover, and he’d like to blame Cuba’s difficulties on the COVID-19 pandemic, the sharp drop in tourism, and the policies of his favorite bogeyman, the United States.

The root problem, however, is his own government and the way it treats agriculture.

Or perhaps I should say: the way it mistreats agriculture.

Years ago, I visited Cuban farms on a fact-finding mission. What I remember most is the soil: Cuba has perhaps the best soil I’ve ever seen. It’s a glorious natural resource. It’s lush and black and ready to produce food.

Yet the island’s communism has failed farmers utterly. I’m tempted to observe that their farm technology is stuck in the 20th century, with antiquated tractors and methods, but the truth is worse: Cuban agriculture more closely resembles something from the 19th century or earlier.

I actually saw a cultivator pulled by an ox.

This is primitive even by the standards of a developing nation. And it goes a long way toward explaining why Cuba, despite its incredible agricultural potential, can’t feed its own people.

Even worse than the lack of technology is the communist system, which refuses to let farmers own their property or enjoy the fruits of their labor. It crushes their incentive to produce.

So they don’t.

Just as famines plagued the Soviet Union, food shortages are an ever-present problem in Cuba. Right now, they’re as acute as they’ve ever been.

white ceramic mug on brown coffee beans“You have to be in line at five in the morning and wait 10 hours to buy a bag of coffee,” a Havana-based electrician told the Wall Street Journal in April.

One solution is to let American farmers sell more of what they grow to Cuba. A food-for-cash exception to the economic embargo already permits some trade, but Cuba could become a much bigger market for U.S. producers.

The Cuban government just slashed flour rations—and I’m sure my wheat-farming friends in the upper Midwest would be pleased to make their supplies available.

This would serve the humanitarian goal of feeding hungry Cubans and the economic goal of helping the bottom line of American farmers. It might also advance the long-term interests of a food-secure Cuba, if it introduces market principles to people who have suffered under despotism.

Ordinary Cubans always have known what they’re missing, which is why so many of them over the years have tried to reach Florida on rowboats, innertubes, or really anything that can float.

Ultimately, however, what they need is freedom: the freedom to farm, which includes access to modern technology, mechanization, and more; the freedom to trade, including the exchange of goods and services with their global neighbors; and of course the freedom to vote, including the ability to remove from office the leaders who have failed them in the basic responsibility of making sure they have enough food.

Here’s to “Cuba Libre.”

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, previously raising 1,400 acres of fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm now raises 70 acres of field corn and John advises local farmers on growing and marketing retail vegetables. John volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and has provided leadership to the Farmland Preservation Board, the Vegetable Growers Association of New Jersey and New Jersey Tomato Council. As a former New Jersey Farm Bureau President, his interest and long-time support of free trade was supported by his involvement in 11 international trade missions and engagement in World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and Geneva.

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