I’m soon en route to Cuba, the alligator shaped island only miles south of the Florida Keyes, the tiny island that could – viva! and couldn’t – coño! The place where mangos are considered tantalizing fruits and good looking guys and gals.
Where art flows like water, most people are university educated, child health indicators are amongst the best in Latin America, and a monthly food basket continues to provide milk and yogurt to all developing children and youth. To an island where people sing folk songs about revolutionaries and farmers, alike.
For those who have visited, and those who have not (and those who will never) Cuba is an easy place to romanticize, isn’t? Wherever your personal ideology falls, chances are that you’ve speculated on Cuba before, projecting your own political desires onto the place — lo bueno, lo malo y lo feo (the good, bad and ugly).
Haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. Me? I’m trying to be neither, nor. Though, admittedly, I have a deep, sweet spot for the country. It’s occurred to me over the years that Cuba is certainly one of the most interesting places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit and conocer (get to know)…
I came to know Cuba because of Cuban farmers. Back in 2010, I had the opportunity to help translating for a group of Albertan and Canadian farmers, permaculturalists and food activists in Cuba and tag along for a two-week tour of the country. I was inspired to see such a starkly contrasting system with the systems of mass inequality I’d witnessed and interacted with in the past in other countries in Central America. Admittedly, after my first visit, I had a serious case of Cuba-fever. I went back again for a seven-week internship, and again the following year in 2012. I was addicted.
My obsessive romanticism with Cuba subsided as I got to know Cubans on a personal level and well beyond just a superficial tour of their incredible permaculture systems, roof top gardens and fruit orchards.
It occurred to me that the island became something of a ‘better than’ for me; a false utopia where I steal get away from Canada’s capitalism and bask in ‘all the right solutions’. Of course, that attitude does an injustice to Cubans, most of whom, I’d argue, don’t actually know about permaculture and likely don’t have a garden of their own. Sure, Cubans receive monthly food rations, but on an average state salary of $12/month, how can they afford to buy additional food goods, let alone supplies to build a garden? In addition, the food ration system has been cut back by at least 50% in the last years.
“Have you ever tasted a ‘wind sandwich’ before, Trina?” my friends once asked me, laughing. Sandwich de viento.
There’s a certain danger in North Americans and outsiders viewing Cuba with the ‘green utopia’ glasses on: it’s the assumption of abundance, versus the reality of scarcity.
There are too many contradictions in Cuba to get too firmly rooted in the sustainable agriculture romanticism; the island is a far cry from being food secure — and Cuban agroecologists and permaculturalists would be the first to admit that — but that’s not to say that Cuba doesn’t provide some excellent alternatives to food production, examples that are deeply embedded in their own political, cultural and economic history.
And it’s certainly not to say that there’s no room to be inspired by Cuban farmers, permies, agroecologists and agronomists. There’s a lot of space for that…
And so it’s been three years since I’ve last traveled to Cuba. I am glad and grateful for the opportunity to go back. This time I’m going as participant of yet another permaculture design course, but furthermore, as a writer and chaser of women farmers’ stories.
I’ve never worn the feminist-gender lens in Cuba, the lens that I’ve developed more critically in recent years. Of course, bits of history on women’s liberation movements and socialist propaganda on “women as soldiers of the state” always caught my eye and ear and attention in the past. But I’ve never spoken to women, intentionally, about what it meant and what it means to be a woman and participate in alternative food production in Cuba. The ‘guajiro’ after all is known and revered and sung about in folk songs, being distinctly male. There are no folk songs, to my outsider’s knowledge anyways, about las guajiras.
The women who, following the 1959 revolution, formed all-female brigades to roast under the hot sun and cut la zafra, the sugar cane harvest. Then after the fall of the Soviet Union and state-led industrial agriculture in Cuba, the women who left their jobs as teachers, lawyers and nurses to grow food in backyards, on rooftops and abandoned spaces. Who are these women farmers from yesterday and today?
And so, me voy otra vez, I’m leaving again, on the final leg of my journey, to bask in toda la Cubana and all the intriguing contradictions that will surely (and welcomingly) be revealed…