“We must return to the land! We must make it produce!” emphatically expressed the President of the Council of State during the closing session of the National Assembly on July 11th. About this issue, he said that they would very soon enact “the necessary legal orders to initiate the turning over of lands in usufruct to those who can make the land immediately productive.” One week later Law/Decree 259 was passed with this goal.
The order, though a response to situational reasons, touches upon one of the most long standing and unresolved problems of the nation.
The diversification process of rural properties, began in the 16th century – at first between the peninsulares [colonists born in Spain] and later between criollos [Spanish colonists born in the Americas] – and underwent a change in the 19th century, marked by the increase in sugar production, that grouped together properties into grand latifundios [large estates] out of about half of the country’s cultivatable land. A phenomenon so negative for the shaping of the nation that it couldn’t be ignored by the more progressive thinkers on the island. In 1808, Bishop Espada drafted a project based on an economy that was sustained by small and median sized properties. In 1832, Jose Antonio Saco, in his Analysis of Work in Brazil, advocated for the conversion of slave plantations into small agricultural parcels. In 1857, Francisco de Frias, the Count of Pozos Dulces, stated that “ should be above all the mother country of small property owners and small farmers,” and called to establish a system based on small agricultural property holdings.
Later, Enrique Jose Varona defended small property ownership and the formation of a national middle class. In Varona’s opinion, “the instability that Cuba had been going through for over a century was based on its economic structure: at the beginning [of the colonial period] the Cubans had land, and therefore, agricultural wealth, but lacked political power; during the Great War [1868 – 1878] Cubans lost that economic supremacy and still failed to acquire political power; with the War of 1895 they obtained political power, but they couldn’t recuperate their economic potential.” For his part, Jose Marti summed up his idea of agricultural property ownership in a single phrase: “Rich is the nation that has a wealth of small land owners.”
Thanks to military orders 34 and 62 enacted during the American Occupation, the large estate owners continued their growth. These orders allowed to the railroad companies and the American investors to acquire land for railway construction, the building of power stations and for sugar plantations.
In response, Manuel Sanguily presented in 1903 a legal proposal before the Senate to prevent new land sales to foreigners. Finally, the Constitution of 1940 abolished the large estates, limited the ability of foreign companies to acquire land and adopted measures to return land to the Cubans. However, the complementary laws needed to make them effective were never imposed and everything stayed as it was as proof of good intentions.
In his plea, “History Will Absolve Me,” Fidel Castro set out to grant the land to the workers, indentured servants, renters, tenant farmers and squatters that occupied parcels of five or less caballerias [1 caballeria = 13.4 hectares]. This promise took legal form in the Sierra Maestra in October 1958. Then, with the passage of the First Agrarian Reform Law in May 1959, 40.2% of the cultivable land became the property of the State, and with the Second Agrarian Reform Law in October 1963, the share of state owned land rose to 70%. This is how, the program articulated in “History Will Absolve Me” ended up concentrating the land in large state owned properties superior to the ones which it set out to distribute to the people.
Almost fifty years later, the State has announced Decree/Law 259 in the middle of another structural and internal crisis caused by the rising costs of food that calls for turning over of ‘idle lands in usufruct.’ Is this the answer to the age old problem of agricultural property ownership or only the first step along a long road to travel? If it is the latter, stagnation will continue; if the former option prevails, it points to at least two limitations.
1) If the State clearly has been incapable of making the land productive – in nine years the amount of cultivatable land was reduced by a third – and the production of food stuffs qualifies as one of the gravest problem for national security, then, distributing the idle lands should have the feeling of being only a first step, because if the private producers are able to make these lands productive, then, the scale of this program, for purely economic reasons, must be extended to all cultivatable areas in the country.
2) Usufruct – the right to enjoy the use of something that belongs to someone else – does not deal with the root of the problem. Why is it that if the lands became idle in the hands of the State, that the people who can make them productive cannot possess them as an owner? What is the reason, besides the ideological ones, that makes it impossible for them to become owners and yet capable of holding land in usufruct? Furthermore, if we accept that “all forms of property and production can coexist in harmony, since neither is contradictory under socialism, then why can’t the producers become property owners? The only justification would be to declare that property in the hand of producers is incompatible with socialism, which would mean that the system is designed for those dispossessed of property, the landless, which implies the need for an all-powerful landlord: the State.
The preceding point demonstrates the complexity and the vital importance of the agrarian land problem on the island, an evil that goes from the large plantations of the colonial era through the socialist period, with the consequent damage to the productivity and formation of national free enterprises. A problem of this nature, that effects everyone, should happen through a debate with the citizens, starting with those who work in the fields, who surely must have a great deal to say.