Ten Million and Forty Years Later

August 16, 2010 | Print Print |

By Yusimi Rodriguez, photos: Bill Hackwell

Taking the harvest to the mill. Mario Munoz Sugar Refinery, Matanzas, Cuba

HAVANA TIMES, August 16 – On the last Thursday of every month, issues of the country’s history and present are discussed and debated.  These gatherings are held at the Cuban Film Institute Center (ICAIC) known as “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which is located in the corner of 23rd and 12th streets in Havana’s Vedado district.  On Thursday, July 29, I attended one of these “Last Thursday Forums” for the first time.

First, a panel of specialists on the issue at hand gives a presentation, and then people in the audience pose questions or express their opinions.  After this input the panelists respond.  Though this forum is not promoted in the mass media, nor is it censored.

Attending regularly are intellectuals, writers and artists, as well as anyone who wants to participate, since admission is free.  The topic of the forum that I attended was “The Harvest of Ten Million.”

Cane cutter.

That discussion took its name from the Cuban sugarcane harvest of 1970, when an effort was made to produce ten million tons of sugar. This goal was not reached and the harvest was a failure, though at the same time it was the biggest harvest in the history of our country – but at what price?

Discussing the failed campaign

The panel consisted of planner Selma Diaz; economist Julio Diaz Vazquez, a member of the National Institute of Land Reform in 1970; and the sociologist Juan Valdes Paz.  They covered the carrying out the harvest and how cane was sowed anywhere and everywhere, even to the point of moving cattle off grazing land to devote more fields to planting, which strongly effected the agricultural and livestock industries.

Due to the resource allocation problems in sugar refineries, the shortage of qualified personnel and limited time to make the necessary adjustments, some government ministers even wound up managing refineries.  When it came time to actually cut the cane, it was necessary to mobilize the whole country.  Though lacking experience in this work, workers from all industries, students and even the members of the armed forces were called on to assist in a campaign that distorted the Cuban economy.

Cane cutter.

One person in the audience who spoke in the debate was 14 years old in 1970, but even at that age they went to cut cane.  Their inexperience in this type of work led to getting cut with a machete.  Nonetheless, this was not their bone of contention; instead, it was the fact that —as opposed to the point of view of historians, economists or politicians— there doesn’t exist a work that describes the harvest of 1970 from the perspective of those who directly experienced and suffered it.

Sewing sugar sacks.

The train in which this person traveled to cut cane was routed along a preferential railroad line so they arrived at their destination in a little more than one day.  To return home, a bunch of oranges was the provision for each one of those passengers on the train, which —no longer having a preferred route— took three days to reach Havana; the bags of oranges lasted one.  They returned tired, hungry and without knowing the outcome of the harvest, the result of their effort.

Even if the ten million tons had been reached, would that have compensated all the effort and the sacrifice, or all the resources that were devoted to the harvest?  Before attending this forum, I had heard that during those months classes had closed and even the night schools were shut down.  The rest of the industries in the country were practically paralyzed.  People who participated in the debate and had lived during that time only confirmed these facts to me.

Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of the greatest military leaders in history, conquered the Romans in the battle of Asculum; however he lost 3,505 soldiers against the less than 6,000 Romans who fell. When his was congratulated for his victory he responded, “With another such victory I shall be ruined.” The harvest of 1970 didn’t end up being a pyrrhic victory – it was worse.  It was a pyrrhic defeat because the ten million tons were not reached and the cost was that the harvest lasted longer than normal, land was left devastated, and agriculture and cattle breeding suffered damage from which the country has never totally recovered.

Revelations around the fateful decision

How is it possible that the ten million ton goal was not achieved despite the massive labor force that was dedicated to cutting cane, despite the enthusiasm with which the Cuban people took on that task, and their unbridled confidence that it was possible to achieve it?

Sugar train. Mario Munoz Sugar Refinery, Matanzas

I’ve known people who worked in the harvest and they’ve told me that when they participated they were convinced that they were building the economic future of the country.  It was the moment for each to make a sacrifice for a prosperous tomorrow in which shortages would never again exist.  Now I find that naïve, though I look at them with respect.  I’m sure that if it had been possible to produce the ten million tons of sugar, if it had only depended on the effort of the Cuban people, it would have been accomplished.

Many cried when it was announced that the ten million would not be achieved.  At that moment, the immense majority of people ignored the fact that our leader, Commander-in-chief Fidel Castro, had been alerted that the goal of ten million was impossible.  Over the years I heard rumors and speculation of this in different versions: “An engineer warned him,” “a French economist alerted him,” “the Russians told him.”

Mario Munoz Sugar Mill

On Thursday, July 29, the “Last Thursday Forum” was focused on learning the truth about this matter.  Any other information would be interesting, especially from the mouths of those who were involved in the harvest.  But what I wanted to know was if the country’s leadership —more specifically, our leader— knew ahead of time that it was not possible to reach the ten million ton figure.

Selma Diaz related that she had been part of the group in charge of analyzing the capacity of the country’s sugar refineries to achieve a harvest of ten million tons.  That analysis began starting with the mid-1960s.  When that commission met with our commander-in-chief, they told him that it was only possible to produce 8.5 million tons.  He said that it should be nine, and when they met again he increased the figure to ten.

Consequences of being closed to criticism

Rumors are hardly ever groundless. I’m sure that all of us present at 23rd & 12th had heard that the person responsible for establishing that impossible goal had been Fidel Castro, but we wanted to hear it from the experts.  We needed to hear it said aloud in an official setting, or at least in one that up until then had not been censored.  A secret in hushed voices is not the same thing as a truth stated in public.  The novelty was not the information in and of itself, but in the fact of hearing it directly, in public and from the mouth of someone who was involved in the event.

Sugar refinery worker.

I told this to a friend at the beginning of last week.  I was dying to tell it to someone and I did it with the air of someone who had a scoop, because although she must have heard the same rumors as me all her life, she hadn’t attended the forum.

My friend is 59. I found out her exact age that day and also that her father had worked in the sugar industry for many years prior to the victory of the Revolution.  In 1970 he had enough experience to know that it was impossible to produce ten million tons of sugar.  As the true revolutionary he was, he tried to alert people in a meeting at his workplace that this goal could not be achieved.  That cost him his membership card in the Communist Party of Cuba.

As his daughter, my friend told me that he didn’t have to wait long for time to prove him right.  Though he had been recognized as being among a “national vanguard worker” for many years (thanks to which my friend got to go to a house at the Varadero beach resort every year), they didn’t return her father’s Party card to him until he was much older.

I don’t think I would have accepted it.  I wouldn’t want to be member of an organization that I couldn’t question if it were acting in a way that appeared to be wrong and in which I couldn’t express an opinion that contradicted the official line.

Moreover, that is not only a situation of the past.  Recently, Esteban Morales was “separated” from the Communist Party of Cuba for publishing a letter with criticisms and matters that were not received well by the leadership of the Party.  While they ceaselessly repeat that “Revolution is to change everything that must be changed,” according to the “Concept of Revolution” voiced by comrade Fidel Castro in 2000, they continue applying the same policies.

Continued counterproductive whitewashing

For me, what was most paradoxical on Thursday, July 29, was the cover of the official Granma newspaper that day.  For months, the newspaper has been publishing fragments of old speeches by the Commander-in-chief with the clear intention of demonstrating to us the present validity of his ideas from those times.  If now it’s necessary to eliminate many jobs across the country, for example, they show us on the cover of Granma an excerpt of a speech by the Commandant from thirty or forty years ago criticizing excessive staffing (despite the fact that this has existed in our country ever since that time).

Sugar refinery worker.

Reading these excerpts in Granma, you have to ask yourself how it’s possible that we’ve faced and continued to face so many problems about which our leader has warned us in the past.  It turns out that our official press continues to highlight the role of the leader and recalls his successes.  His errors though are orphaned and enunciated in passive voice (“it was not foreseen,” “it was not planned,” “it was not understood”) or wrapped in an “us,” which makes us all responsible for the errors of a single person.

The fragment that I read in the Thursday July 29 edition of Granma in fact recalled his speech from September 3, 1970, from the same year as the harvest that constituted such a tremendous failure.

But in the excerpt, Fidel called people’s attention to a minority of people who effectively exploited the general public because they didn’t work yet enjoyed public resources.  “When the inhuman factors disappear that previously forced people to work, the alternative of this is the maximum development of collective consciousness and the employment of a coercive force of working society against those who aspire to live parasitically off of others… “

I wonder what that use of coercive force would consist of exactly.  But I especially wonder whether the ten million tons of sugar would have been achieved if those “parasites” had been incorporated in cutting sugar cane?   Were they the ones responsible for the failure of the harvest and the country’s subsequent economic problems?  In that harvest, the refineries couldn’t process all of the cane that was cut.  But while people’s attention was diverted toward those people who didn’t work, they didn’t have time to reflect on the errors made by the highest leadership of the country.


What's your opinion?

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera

    Yusimi

    I was a kid when the “The Harvest of Ten Million.” was happening. Remember the constant advertising on TV were they used to say “Los dies millones van de que van van” (The ten million are going they will relly go) I believe one popular musical band name comes from that “Los van van”.
    That was the revolutions silver bullet. But even after this naive mistake there have been many others of similar tune but not as spectacular.
    Many years later when I arrive to the US I was able to read the little book by Orwell Animal Farm. And there it was the windmill that all the animals in the farm were summon to build as a task. The task many knew was impossible! One can read so much into this.

    One can almost imagine Fidel Castro as Don Quijote tilting at windmills the same kind of invented fights with the “enemy up north”!
    Some day Cubans will be free to discuss all this and more will be known.
    I always wonder why Fidel Castro have never allow criticism of his policies?

    Why?

    We all know that to err is human so someone who does not err or appear not to err may appear as a God.
    Is it because he did not wanted to feel dejected? Or to appear as a God to his people?
    I wish he could reflect on those things and explain himself so that the mystery is solve but I am afraid he is to proud and vane to admit his own mistakes.

    After the ten million we can also remember about “Ubre blanca” (white udder ) the cow that could produce so much milk that will solve all the milk problems for Cuba! at some point we probably knew more about this cow from the local press (Granma) than from Fidel Castro himself!
    Or the microjet bananos and on and on. While he was probably well intention. One can see a pattern of wanting to find the silver bullet that will save the Cuban economy. The fact is there is never such silver bullet.
    You can never base the economy of a country even as small as Cuba in a one trick pony.

    The revolution failed miserably in the economic area and the main reason for that failure was and still is because they refused to let the creative potential of all Cubans free. They failed to see that the role for the government was not one of dictating but in the best case one of protecting and nurturing and listening to the people.

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera
  • Michael N. Landis

    ?!Has it been 40 years?! During the Zafra de los Diez Millones I was one of the Northamerican volunteers on the first contingent of the Venceremos Brigade (Nov.’69-Feb.’70), cutting cane at Campamento Averhoff, near Aguacate, in eastern Habana Province. Never worked so hard, physically, before or since, but loved it! Up before dawn. Breakfast, then out to the fields from 6:45/7:00 ’til 11:30 a.m. (with a 15 minute merienda). Break for lunch and rest ’til 2:00 p.m., then back to the fields (with another 15 minute merienda) ’til sunset. During the first days, only cut a measley 100 to 175 arrobas, but gradually worked my way up to a tad under 500. Either Xmas Day 1969, or somewhere thereabouts, Fidel came to visit for a few days and I was one of the 12 lucky ones selected to cut cane with him one afternoon. Like us, he cut all day, both morning and afternoon. That evening, in the comedor, we got to sit at the same table. Afterwards, we adjourned to the social hall where, for the next three hours, he answered questions posed by the brigadistas. In the middle of this, there was a apagon; in the darkness, Fidel continued talking, the embers at the tip of his tobaco bobbing up-and-down in the darkness.
    We were younger then, and thought Olympus could be stormed.

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera

    Michael Landis

    If you do not mind telling us how you end up going to Cuba and participating on the Zafra that must be a good story to tell.

    With regards to believing that “Olympus could be stormed” that is a good description for the innocents of youth!

    Still he is not that youthful anymore but he or the Cuban regime seem to still persist in not allowing any critic or any dissenters.

    I have my take on to why this is.

    The reason I think is because if all the Cubans knew that we were almost all dissenters then the regime that was trying to portrait itself as the government of the people and for the people was not so.

    It was just the imposition of the will of a few on the many. This has always been my impression.

  • Michael N. Landis

    Dear Julio, It is a long story–too long for here. I will briefly outline. In the summer of 1969 a group of Northamerican supporters of the Revolution began organizing the Venceremos Brigade. I signed up that Fall, and left from Boston with part of the first contingent (flying first to Mexico City, then on to Habana). We worked from December through early February, then toured the island, returning mid-February on the Cuban freighter Luis Arcos Bergnes from Habana to St.Johns, New Brunswick. As soon as we got off the ship, another contingent got on. Since then, over the years, there have been many, many later contingents of the Venceremos Brigade. Recently revisited Aguacate, but time has worn away all traces of the camp. At least now in the region of Aguacate the sugar monoculture is on the wane, replaced by a wide variety of organically grown vegetables, plus pigs and chickens.
    I’m still naive–or hopefull– enough believe that the Revolution (as well as the human race) is a work in progress. Err, mistakes have been made (an understatement), but still, the Generation of ’59 tried as best they could, working against tremendous odds, including the full might of what Gore Vidal once called “the OTHER Evil Empire” to the North, to try to make a better life for their country. Also, from a visit in 1959,just after the triumph of the Revoluion, I remember how truly aweful life was for all Cubans who were not in the middle- or upper-classes. The poverty I saw as a child and adolescent in my own nation in the late 1950′s, specifically the American South, paled in comparisonto the utter destitution of the gut wrenching poverty I saw in Cuba that first summer after the triumph. What I saw then motivated with me a life-long commitment to social and economic justice. As time goes on, however, I’ve come to see that revolutionary posturing is mere egotism. Still, I really hate the injustices I see all about me.

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera

    Michael Landis
    I am sure the same kind of poverty you talk about that existed before in Cuba still exist in Cuba.
    I can tell you a few stories myself about children with bellies full of worm and without shoes or cloth living in small huts with dirt floor and we are talking during the revolution in the 70 and 80s. But this things are out of the way of the places they show the tourist and the supporters. I saw this with my own eyes. I would bet it will not take me long to find it again in Cuba.

    Like you I also hate injustices!
    Hate to see my fellow Cubans starving while the ruling class live like millionaires!
    Hate to see how they are been asked to sacrifice more and are exploited with the miserable salaries for something that does not produce any fruits. I could go on but I think you know how I feel.

  • http://www.GRDPublishing.com Grady Ross Daugherty

    It’s odd that Fidel came up with the 10-million zafra, given that Mao’s Great Leap Forward a decade earlier was a failure, and led to a great limping backward.

  • Hubert Gieschen

    However , I think Julio you completely overlook the Jim Crow racism and the third world living conditions in the Deep South not so long ago. I can see why Cuba appeared different. Living standards in 1959 in Cuba were in theory on average not too bad compared to other countries. However, the huge discrepancies between rich and poor, for example that many farmworkers in Cuba had no income for half a year and the injustices under Batista cannot be taken lightly. Some things are better now, just look at the civil defence system that saves lives during hurricanes, something the USA cannot claim.
    However, once the basics of life have been met and there is nothing else, young people want to travel. After all if young Che Guevara did not need an exit permit to leave his home country, why do Cubans today.

  • Hubert Gieschen

    Grady,
    sorry I never replied to your other post. Just busy. Fidel Castro once said one of his greatest regrets in life was never to have met Mao. Maybe there is your answer.
    Julio/Michael
    the problem with discussing Cuba seems, many can only ever think in black and white.
    Luckily, Havanatimes.org exists to go beyond this.
    The US embargo has been the worst thing to happen to the Cuban people since the revolution. I agree, there is a lack of open debate and critical questions on Cuban television never happen. The way resignations in Cuba happen does not instil confidence in the claim that the people are in charge..

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera

    Hubert

    I am not as blind as to denied there have been some advances. But the cost for it is so tremendous to the individual.
    I hear some of you talking about the exploitation in capitalist societies and I really wonder on what leg they are standing when we know the average salary of a Cuban is not even 20 dollars a month!
    That’s just the economical cost now let us question ourself about the human cost. The loss of almost all the human rights as stated in the Universal declaration. That is just simply inadmisible. There is not amount of reasons that could justify the loss of any of these rights.

    50 years of Utopia and they are still worst off than when they started in 1959!
    around 20 percent of the cuban population is exiled around the world. If the doors were to open many more will also go. Just tired from being experimented with like lab rats.

    The objective of any system should be to increase the well being of everyone in society as evenly as possible without too much polarization of wealth, but not by just make everyone poor. That was the end result of the revolution of 1959. Instead of bootstrapping people out of poverty they made everyone poor and dependent of the state.
    Instead of cubans producing and lifting their own weight, the cuban government has been asking for money everywhere it can find it. First the Soviet Union, then the Europeans ,the Asians and on and on they owed money everywhere.
    Cuba is a beggar state.
    Is time to return back freedom and let Cubans produce on their own.
    I just could not believe that Cuba had to import food. Something that could easily be produce in Cuba. They have the people all they need to do is work. Why was this not working? what was wrong? (The socialist economy was wrong)
    The centralize economy and all the other craziness we have been talking about with all this pet projects of Fidel Castro.
    Hey I can understand you try for 5 years and if you are successful then you keep going on that path. But 50 years on the wrong path and still not realize that you took a wrong turn somewhere is really very difficult to understand.

  • Hubert Gieschen

    Julio,
    with me you are knocking on many open doors here. However, I am a socialist (one that believes socialism can never mean one-party-state!) Where we have to agree to disagree is that clearly there is massive exploitation in capitalism both on a national and a global scale. Just look at the immorale way stock markets gamble with wheat prices and deny third world consumers access to affordable food sources

  • http://blog.isallaboutmath.com Julio de la Yncera

    Hubert
    Could you please explain in more detail what you mean by this

    “Just look at the immorale way stock markets gamble with wheat prices and deny third world consumers access to affordable food sources”

    I like to understand what you mean so that I can properly answer you.

  • Michael N. Landis

    If you contrast Cuba with surrounding 3rd World nations, Hubert and Julio, you will see that many in the younger generations there–Mexico, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, Guatemala, San Salvadore, Honduras, etc.– cannot make any economic progress in their respective homelands and are migrating, often illegally, to the United States. This is so much the case that often a major part of growth, at least outside the capital cities and other major metropolitan areas, is the fact that these immigrants remit USD$ home. Also, whenever the majority of folks in these nations vote for candidates whose programs coincide with their economic interests, rather than those of the rulling classes, then these elections are stolen (as was the case in Mexico in the early 2000′s), or the ruling classes pull an outright coup (as was the case recently in Honduras). Not that two or three–or a dozen–wrongs make a right (i.e. justify the Cuban government’s continuing to sit on its hands, rather than addressing its own pressing economic, social and political issues), but just to bring some contrast and focus between Cuba and the rest of the region. Finally, any shrewd observer will see that democracy in America is more and more becoming a myth. Just as in the late Roman Republic, wealth and power have come ever more to dominate our own political processes.