Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — As many of you know, I work the land. My official profession is “farmer”, although that’s not the profession I identify with. I feel like a communicator more than anything else. Although I must be honest, what I really like is politics, but I refuse to take part in this if there isn’t a democracy. Thinking and writing about politics not only led me to journalism, it also put me on State Security’s blacklist. It’s a very dangerous place to be in Cuba.
In reality, I am a geneticist by trade, although I stepped away from this job several years ago because of financial issues: I was only earning 540 pesos per month (22 USD) and the mother of my eldest daughter was pregnant. Just the baby cot cost three times my salary, not to mention the layette, so I abandoned the professional dreams I had in my youth and I turned to working the land.
My father was already tired and sick, so he gave me a small 1-hectare plot of land which he had inherited from my grandmother. I grew lots of things, but I finally managed to get a license to plant tobacco. You can only plant tobacco if it’s in the TABACUBA company/monopoly’s interests. If you grow it independently, you can be fined, and they destroy your crops.
The Plant Health office assumes that they are unprotected and vulnerable to plagues and disease because nobody has legally sold you these products, a breeding ground for infection hypothetically-speaking, even though they are healthy. It’s a way for the authorities to keep absolute control and tabs on everything. I had to work hard to be included but I finally managed to get on their list four years ago.
Now, I am sadly forced to make a drastic decision: I won’t plant any more tobacco. Let me explain why.
In the first year, I invested approximately 15,000 Cuban pesos into infrastructure, which I asked for as a loan almost entirely. You also need an investment for the crop, which I had to ask the bank for. I worked a lot and I became a carpenter because I had to build the tobacco barn myself. It was harder for me to get hold of the materials and I needed to get the company to support me. Luckily, I was ahead of other priority farmers in poorly irrigated areas and with the chance of TV reporters coming to visit me, everything worked out at the last minute.
I worked really hard and I had a good yield that year. I was already expecting my second daughter so just imagine our basic expenses, difficulties and ambitions. I can assure you that if we didn’t starve, we were on the verge of doing so. We went through a lot of dark times investing everything we had into tobacco farming. The maximum price per quintal is 2255 Cuban pesos and nearly everything was sold for a price around the maximum amount. I earned just over 20,000 pesos which I used to pay my loans off with and there was something left over to get by.
The year after, I planted the same amount and the yield seemed to be the same. I managed to buy two rocking chairs for my living room which was left empty when I separated from the mother of my eldest daughter. I still didn’t have a TV or a refrigerator but I was hopeful for the future. I got myself ready to invest more in my third harvest and to expand a little. I rented out land (something which is forbidden but common practice) and I doubled my yield.
I worked like a mule, as the saying goes, and it was a great harvest. However, for some unknown reason (I guess it must be environmental), a “green stain” affected tobacco leaves in parts of the country. This implies losses, of course, but in Mayari, it also coincided with a drop in tobacco purchasing prices.
Up until the year before, there had been a minimum price for affected or third-grade tobacco (fillers), which can be perfectly used to make cigars and cigarettes, and it was over 900 Cuban pesos. Rotten leaves were bought for 292 pesos. However, that year (2017), they stopped buying rotten leaves (which have very little commercial value) and they reduced third-grade tobacco prices to 292 pesos. This meant great losses for farmers because the green stain converted a lot of tobacco into filler, but farmers were able to at least break even with their investment when it used to be bought for over 900 pesos, but at 292 pesos it’s theft.
The green stain affected my harvest, but the unfair price affected me a lot more. I only made 11,000 pesos when I should have made somewhere around 45,000 pesos. I bought a refrigerator and I was left without a single cent, having to find a way to get by “inventing”.
The thing is that because there is so much money involved in tobacco farming, there were problems in quality assessment, abuses of power to rob farmers blind. You know how it goes: at the market, ounces are robbed from you on the scales; at the ice cream shop, a bit of your scoop; at the shopping center, they change prices and in buying and selling tobacco, the same thing happens.
I have explained this situation in many articles published here on Havana Times and Diario de Cuba and the battle (mine and of other farmers) for a fair price. We haven’t managed to get anything done. The government doesn’t accept its people’s protests and we’ll never have justice under these conditions.
This year was the worst because of adverse weather (a lot of rain) and yet in spite of all of this, they continue to squeeze us even more: as well as what I’ve already mentioned, they are now demanding that we separate and hand over tobacco according to its quality, without paying us for this additional labor which was the company’s job up until yesterday.
Even though we are disappointed, most farmers are indebted to the bank because of all these factors which have created a critical situation. Many people want to give up but they can’t because they still owe a lot and find themselves with their hands tied. I owe money, but not that much, so I called it quits. I can’t bear to work one more day under these conditions, I really can’t.
Now, I am in the process of pulling apart my tobacco barn and I’m selling the materials to pay off my debt. I will plant something else. It was a pressing decision.