BY MARTÍN KOPPEL AND MARY-ALICE WATERS
GUIRA DE MELENA, Cuba - "The agrarian reform whose 40th anniversary we are celebrating today was in reality an agrarian revolution," declared Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of the National Association of Small Farmers, in his remarks opening an international conference here May 16.
Those words expressed the convictions of Cubans who were holding political events and festivities around the island commemorating the May 17, 1959, agrarian reform law. That act, more than any other, defined the character of the workers and farmers government established by Cuban working people after they overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Carrying through this revolution in the countryside, millions of farmers, workers, and youth transformed social relations and themselves.
The international conference on the agrarian policy of the Cuban revolution was held May 15-18 at the Niceto Pérez national leadership school of the National Association of Small Farmers of Cuba (ANAP), in this farming town in Havana province. It brought together more than 100 invited guests from 17 countries throughout the Americas and Spain.
Among the participants were representatives of several farm organizations, including the Papay Peasant Movement (MPP) of Haiti, National Confederation of Farm Women (CONAMUCO) of the Dominican Republic, Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) of Brazil, National Farmers Union of St. Vincent, and National Federation of Peasant, Indigenous, and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) of Ecuador. There were also participants from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the United States. About 40 of the participants were from the MST.
The ANAP leadership organized visits to three different kinds of farm cooperatives in Havana province. This allowed conference participants to hear from ANAP members and other rural producers about the steps they are taking today to meet the challenge of increasing food production in face of the effects of the world capitalist economic crisis and the U.S. government's economic war against Cuban working people.
One was a farm of the kind known as an Agricultural Production Cooperative (CPA), where members pool their land and work it collectively. Another was a Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS), where farmers retain individual title to their land and work it themselves, but pool applications for credit, share tractors and other equipment, and sell as a cooperative. ANAP organizes both CPA and CCS members.
A third farm was one of the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), which were created out of the 1993-94 reorganization of state farms. In these cooperatives, the land belongs to the state, and the harvest and equipment used belong collectively to the members. UBPC members continue to be organized by the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), Cuba's trade union federation.
No more evictions in Cuba
In talking with the cooperative members, one of the facts that struck visitors from abroad, especially those who were rural toilers themselves, was the fact that agrarian reform in Cuba has meant farmers there cannot lose the land they work. The debt slavery of capitalism has been abolished. Since the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959, no working farmer has been foreclosed on for nonpayment of debts or forced to sell their land to someone else.
Cuban president Fidel Castro underscored this point in his speech to a May 17 rally in Havana sponsored by ANAP. Under the Batista dictatorship, he pointed out, peasants had been "pariahs who were subjected to degradation, [including] eviction from their lands by the big landlords, who would come with the Rural Guards to burn down peasant huts" and impose capitalist "order" at gunpoint.
Today, Castro said, through their revolution, Cuban farmers "are the law - or more accurately, are the representatives of the law, the representatives of order, those who carry the guns, the defenders of their country" against U.S. aggression.
After the Havana rally, a ceremony was held to present awards to a number of ANAP members from around the country for their work in strengthening the organization. Farmers from six provinces where ANAP has carried out the most outstanding work -headed by the province of Cienfuegos - were also honored. Other ANAP-sponsored events included a cultural gala with traditional musical poetry improvisation and a contest for Cuban peasant music.
In his inaugural words to the international gathering, ANAP president Lugo Fonte pointed to the farmers' leadership training school, established in 1962, as an example of the fact that the agrarian revolution has meant not only land but a broadening of education and culture.
Lugo Fonte was joined on the platform by José (Pepe) Ramírez, a founder and longtime president of ANAP. Ramírez was the initiator of the Peasant Congress in Arms, organized by the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba in September 1958 during the final months of the war against the Batista regime.
Participants in the gathering approved a joint statement that was read at the Havana rally. The statement condemned the U.S.- led war against Yugoslavia and expressed commitment to campaign against the U.S. embargo of Cuba as well as to oppose the economic austerity measures demanded by imperialist powers and implemented by capitalist governments in every Latin American country except Cuba.
One of the highlights of the conference was a panel discussion on the agrarian policy of the revolution, followed by questions and discussion. Most of the speakers had been teenagers from peasant families at the time of the revolution and involved from the earliest days in implementing the land reform law.
José Manso, director of ANAP's leadership training school, outlined the history of land ownership in Cuba, from colonial times through the revolution. He pointed out that the revolutionary leadership carried out to the end the agrarian reform and other aspects of the revolutionary democratic program that Fidel Castro, in his 1953 speech known as "History Will Absolve Me," presented in the courtroom where he and others were tried following their assault on the Moncada army barracks of the dictatorship.
More than a land reform
Mario La O, legal advisor for ANAP nationally, spoke about the 1959 and 1963 agrarian reform laws. Through the 1959 measure, the revolutionary government expropriated millions of acres of large plantations owned by U.S. and Cuban capitalists, "directly taking on imperialist interests," he said. Hundreds of thousands of peasants received titles to the land they worked. The first title demonstratively went to a woman farmer in Guantánamo, one of Cuba's poorest provinces.
To implement the land reform, which restricted land ownership to 1,000 acres, the government established the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA). The second land reform, adopted in October 1963, expropriated holdings larger than 165 acres.
Mariano Tuero, an agronomist who works for the national ANAP leadership, expanded on the social scope of the agrarian revolution. Land reform, he explained, meant jobs for hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers. It was accompanied by a massive campaign that wiped out illiteracy, built schools, housing, and medical centers throughout the countryside, and brought electricity to rural Cuba. It meant mechanization of the backbreaking sugarcane harvest.
For small farmers, land reform meant guaranteed cheap credit; easy access to machinery, seeds, and other inputs; an assured market; and prices affording a livable income.
Mavis Alvarez, today the national project director for ANAP, described the experience of the early years of the agrarian reform. Peasants, she pointed out, were the big majority of the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary struggle in the late 1950s. "With the triumph of the revolution in January 1959, the war ended, but another, longer war began, a class war" against the U.S. imperialist and native capitalist exploiters, Alvarez said.
The word "small" in the name National Association of Small Farmers was important, she stressed, because ANAP, which was founded in 1961, organized exploited farmers and "it was necessary to distinguish it from the big landowners," whose class interests were counterposed to those of the peasants.
In his May 17 speech, Castro also commented on ANAP's name. It's a national association of small farmers, but not farmers who are small in stature. "It's a national association of giants," he said, to applause.
`Had to break up the old system'
Alvarez explained that to carry out the land reform, "everything had to be redone. For example, banks were not set up to give loans to peasants - the old system had to be broken and a new one created" to serve the interests of farmers and workers instead of the former capitalist rulers.
The creation of INRA was part of this process. From the beginning, INRA offices throughout the island were staffed by enthusiastic, revolutionary-minded teenagers like herself.
At the beginning of the land reform, Alvarez noted, it was not unusual for a peasant to refuse to accept from INRA the title to the land he worked, saying the land didn't belong to him but to a rich landowner, and that he wouldn't take something that wasn't his.
In the discussion period, one of the participants, from a social service organization in Ecuador, asked, "What methodology did you use to raise the consciousness of peasants?" Alvarez laughed, and replied that at that time in her life, neither she nor anyone else working for INRA had even heard the word, nor would they have had the slightest idea what "methodology" might be. They were simply ardent supporters of the revolution and went out to work with other peasants, one by one, to win them through persuasion.
In this process ANAP played an important role "to open up the possibility for peasants to become active participants and mobilizers in society," she said.
In the closing session of the conference, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, addressed the international gathering. "We are not commemorating a historic date but speaking of the present," he stressed. "Imperialism has failed to defeat us over the past 40 years," and the agrarian revolution is one of the reasons they have failed.
U.S. hostility from the beginning
The U.S. government's hostility toward the Cuban revolution goes back to the very beginning, Alarcón pointed out - before the Cuban leadership had even begun carrying out socialist measures, and before it had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The wealthy U.S. rulers reacted with increasing virulence to the agrarian reform and other measures that advanced the well-being and self-confidence of working people at the expense of the privileges and prerogatives of the capitalist minority.
To illustrate this fact, he pointed to a 1961 CIA report, made public in February of last year, noting that the U.S. spy agency's "Cuba Program," a covert plan to support counterrevolutionary groups both in Cuba and in the United States - existing today under the name Cuba Project - had been launched in early 1959.
For Cuba, Alarcón stated, "May 17, 1959, is a date that truly marks our independence." The 40th anniversary of that date was also marked - in Miami - by those who today call themselves the Association of Cuban Landowners in Exile, the Association of Cuban Cattlemen in Exile, and the Association of Cuban Tobacco Growers in Exile, "who were the owners and usurpers of Cuban land until May 17, 1959," he noted.
A USA Today article describing this gathering was headlined, "Awaiting a return to the good life in Cuba." Yes, Alarcón said, "That was the good life for the landlords. But for the peasants in Cuba, their return would be the return of slavery, hunger, unemployment, the hell of those days" that prevailed before the revolution.
Similarly, the Cuban leader cited with humor recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Miami Herald reporting on a nasty legal feud between members of a former capitalist landowning family from Cuba, now living in the United States, over which branch of the family has rights to three large sugar mills and plantations in Havana province that were expropriated by working people in Cuba four decades ago. These individuals have been spurred on by the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which tightens the U.S. embargo of Cuba and declares its aim of protecting those with claims on property confiscated by Cuba's workers and farmers after 1959.
While such posturing by the former exploiters is grotesque, Alarcón noted, it is a reminder of what the Cuban people successfully fought to end once and for all. Today, as in 1959, they are waging a life-and-death struggle. There are only two roads, he stated, "either Cuba will continue to be independent and governed by workers and peasants, or the country will again be under the rule of foreign powers and those seeking a return to the `good lifé of exploitation" of the toiling majority.
Alarcón said the imperialist rulers in the United States and elsewhere thought the crumbling of the regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would mean the collapse of the Cuban revolution and the reimposition of capitalism. But they were mistaken.
"The socialist camp disappeared a decade ago. At that time, certain sections of international capital believed they had won the Cold War," he stated. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has become more aggressive. "But we have had 40 years of struggle for socialism in Cuba, and we are still here."
"We are in a world today where the fight against capitalism, sometimes called neoliberalism, will be a difficult one. But in that struggle, Cubans will be able to fulfill our duty," Alarcón declared.
"Cuba belongs to its workers and peasants, and it will remain so."
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