Cuban Urban Agriculture and the Challenge to Orthodox Western Economic Discourse

By Sharang Sharma

ARTSSCI 1C03: Inquiry: Global Challenges



Looking around the world today, very few disciplines seem so near to the everyday lives of people as that of economics, yet at the same time there are few disciplines as distant from the actuality of the context, the time, and the place that we are living in. Orthodox economics, that which most students study in their textbooks, attempts to explain economic behaviour universally, regardless of time and place (Sweezy 229). Not only does this discipline attempt to explain economic behaviour universally, but since it also is key to the formation of economic policies by states all around the world, it is applied universally (Zein-Elabdin and Charusheela 2). However, these ideas stem from the intellectual traditions of a specific context: that of Europe (Zein-Elabdin and Charusheela 2). The issue is that, in being applied universally, this universal form of theorizing makes itself true, in the sense of bringing about its own conditions even if they were not previously present (Zein-Elabdin and Charusheela 2). Therefore, there has recently been a growing critique, in post-colonial and post-development studies, of the hegemonic imposition of orthodox economics in contexts outside of that from which it first sprung (Chakrabarty 4). Thus it is important to search for alternative economies and alternative theories of economics, specifically those that are resilient to the universalizing of orthodox economic theory. These should pay head to the specific contexts which bring about various different forms of economic behaviour, resisting the ambitiously universal notions of economic behaviour that orthodox economic theory applies everywhere.

Cuba’s urban agricultural system provides a candidate for the analysis of an alternative economy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba entered the “Special Period in Times of Peace” (Perez 304), being thrown into crisis due to the loss of its most important trading partner (Perez 304, Dominguez 146). Thus, Cuba lost its main source of trade and energy: Soviet oil and petroleum, which “accounted for an estimated 90% of Cuban energy needs” (Perez 304). Moreover, since the Soviet Union was Cuba’s main export market, its collapse led to a shrinking of the Cuban economy (Perez 305). In addition, the USA had been continuously isolating Cuba from other avenues of trade by punishing those who attempted to do so through the imposition of various trade sanctions since the 1960s (Perez 310-320, Dominguez 141). Though the USA did ease up on some of these sanctions in the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba nonetheless remained isolated from many avenues of trade (Dominguez 144). Thus, Cuba had to distance itself from its industrial agricultural system due to a lack of energy resources (Koont 12). This reality, along with the predominantly urban population of Cuba (Gurcan 132), led to the development of the organic urban agricultural system (Premat, Sowing Change 27-28). In this system, unused land within urban areas is re-appropriated and used to grow a variety of crops for the local community (Companioni et al. 223). The system is meant to be locally autonomous and participatory and is split into different types of agricultural units (Cederlof 773). These units are broken up into three categories. First, cooperative owned organoponicos which use canteros (walled cultivation beds filled with soil and other organic materials) (Koont 34-36). Second, parcelas: unused pieces of land granted to individuals in usufruct as long as they maintain an acceptable level of production (Koont 34-36). Third, patios: individually owned home gardens (Koont 34-36). The Cuban urban agricultural system was born out of being forced out of the global economic order, but in what ways does it represent an alternative economic system?

In this paper, the extent to which Cuban urban agriculture challenges orthodox western economics will be examined by looking at how Cuba’s system views its participants as both simple and rational profit maximizing actors and complex human subjects; how a uniform and abstracted mode of production is imposed all over Cuba, while still allowing for difference within its boundaries; and how culture is incorporated as a key element of the economic system. While the Cuban urban agricultural system challenges orthodox economic theory, it nonetheless accepts some of its presumptions, producing a hybrid system which both challenges and adheres to orthodox economic theory.

By viewing workers as simple, rational profit maximizing agents and complex human subjects driven by often contradictory desires and social connection, the Cuban urban agricultural system both follows and challenges orthodox economic theory. In orthodox economic theory, the economic ‘subject’ is “a conscious optimising economic agent, who forever is in pursuit of self-interest” (Kayatekin 1191). This ‘subject’ has a stable and singular desire for profit maximization (Kaul 184). The ‘subject’ is usually referred to as ‘homo economicus’ (Tsakalotos 141, Yamagishi et al. 1699). Homo economicus, in being singular in his pursuit for profit maximization, also disregards the welfare of others and operates in a ‘social vacuum’, his rationality being separate from social norms (Tsakalotos 141, Yamagishi et al. 1699). Thus, orthodox economic theory posits an asocial and amoral economic ‘subject’, truly singular in his drive for profit maximization. During the revolutionary period (before the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Cuban state applied a system of centrally decided, fixed pay scales, not providing incentives for individual worker productivity (Koont 99). However, this changed in the Special Period, and the state began adopting a system based on “pago por resultados (pay according to achieved results)” (Koont 100). In terms of urban agriculture, workers began receiving up to 50% of the profits made as income; agricultural products were increasingly sold in public markets governed by supply and demand, where the cooperatives could make greater profits (Koont 100-101). If workers could generate a greater profit by producing more products that people want to buy, they could also increase their incomes. Thus, this system of material incentives perceives workers as simple profit maximizing: the incentives are structured only around the workers’ desire for greater profit. By using material incentives, Cuba’s system conforms to orthodox economic theory by viewing its workers as simple profit-maximizers and implementing a policy based on this view.

By using moral incentives that provide recognition to workers with exemplary urban gardens, the Cuban urban agricultural system identifies a desire beyond that of simple profit maximization found in a social vacuum: recognition and pride. The Referencia system, run by the Cuban state, is the most significant award scheme present within the urban agricultural system (Koont 110). In this system, agricultural units seek designations of municipal, provincial, or national reference, to be referenced as exemplary model units for others to work towards and replicate (Koont 110). To achieve these designations, agricultural units must fill out a variety of criteria, such as: making full use of arable area, using adequate organic material in beds and substratum, and providing at least 10 varieties of vegetables for sale (Koont 111). To achieve the highest designation, the units must have fruit trees, vegetables and fresh condiments, rabbit raising, chicken raising, vermiculture, composting, and ornamental plants and flowers (Koont 112). An example of such an agricultural unit would be the UBPC Organoponico Vivero Alamar which achieved the highest designation of excelencia (Koont 147). Not only does this unit produce over 15 different fruits and vegetables alongside eggs, but it also produces most of its own seedlings (Koont 148-149). Agricultural units which are given these designations then become places where others can learn and where the state introduces new technologies and practices (Koont 83). Cuban gardeners sought these awards because of attachment to their gardens, the pride they took in them, and their desire to have their accomplishments recognized (“Havana’s Urban Agriculture” 18-19). Perhaps rational agents only want superior access to new technologies and practices provided by the government, so as to produce more efficiently and further maximize profits. However, gardeners focus on state recognition over help from non-state actors such as NGOs which offer little recognition, but greater material benefit through the implementation of more efficient technologies and practices (“Havana’s Urban Agriculture” 20). Hence, Cuba’s system acknowledges that workers don’t operate in a social vacuum but desire recognition for and take pride in their accomplishments. Thus, the system recognizes desires beyond self-interest and profit maximization, ultimately challenging the orthodox view of the economic ‘subject’.

Furthermore, by providing moral incentives in structures of sharing and learning from one another, the Cuban urban agricultural system not only recognizes that its workers do not make decisions in a ‘social vacuum’, but also do care for the welfare of others, unlike the homo economicus. The Cuban state promotes Che Guevara’s ideal of the socialist man, or hombre nuevo who, “would become a stranger to the mercantile side of things, working for society, and not for profit” (Premat, “Small-scale Urban Agriculture” 94). The Hombre nuevo ideal is reflected in both garden clubs, where workers share and learn techniques from their peers and friends and in Premat’s account of gardeners giving away some of their produce rather than selling it because doing so, “does not work against anyone. On the contrary, it helps” (Gurcon 137, “Small-scale Urban Agriculture” 94). Workers are driven by connections with their peers and co-workers, along with a desire to “be humane” (Premat, “Small-scale Urban Agriculture” 94) and thus rise above self-interest in helping their community. Cuba’s system actively promotes and creates spaces and opportunities for sharing through garden clubs and programs where model workers teach and help workers across their municipalities and provinces (Gurcon 139). Cuba’s system acknowledges that its workers are driven not just by self-interest, but also by their social connections to peers and friends, caring about the welfare of themselves and their friends. In this way, Cuba’s system doesn’t see workers in terms of the homo economicus, functioning in a social vacuum and only caring for their own welfare, but challenges this assumption found in orthodox economic theory. However, these two systems of moral incentives, one focussing on recognition over and against others and the other focussing on caring for the welfare of others, seem almost contradictory in their emphasis on both competition and sharing.

Homi Bhaba’s use of the idea of ‘ambivalence’ (Kayetakin 1195) explains the Cuban agricultural system’s contradictory incentives, and how this demonstrates a further break from treating economic actors as simple profit maximizers as found in orthodox economic theory. Ambivalence explains how human subjectivity is contradictory; people often desire the same thing that they deride and want to move away from (Kayetakin 1194). This push and pull leads to a ‘splitting’, so that the subject in question does not identify with either process of desiring and moving away from (Kayetakin 1195). Furthermore, Bhaba emphasizes how history and culture produce this human subjectivity (Kayetakin 1195). Bhabha’s ambivalence can be found in the Cuban worker in the contradiction between competition and social consciousness. Though workers wish to be designated as a reference over and against other workers, conflict arises between the desire for recognition and the ethos of sharing and equality, which stems from an empathic connection to their peers. This conflict of moral incentives is situated in the context of the hombre nuevo and revolutionary ideals of the socialist man, as it is these Cuban ideals that contradict the desire to be recognized over their fellow person. Hence, the system, most likely unintentionally, recognizes the contradictions found in human subjectivity through the interplay of these seemingly opposed moral incentives. Rather than viewing workers as simple, stable agents (Kayatekin 1191), the Cuban system recognizes how subjects tend to have contradictory desires that are shaped by their specific contexts, in this case the ideal of the hombre nuevo. In doing so, the Cuban urban agricultural system, while still implementing material incentives which view workers as profit maximizers, accounts for the human complexity within the workers through award schemes, the ideal of the hombre nuevo, and the interplay of these contradictory moral incentives.

However, the Cuban agricultural system still follows the method of orthodox economic theory in some ways, such as by applying a broad criterion for success in agricultural production that does not take local contexts and conditions into account. As mentioned before, an issue with orthodox economic theory is its tendency to apply universals (which actually arise out of a specific context) throughout time and place, thus applying ideas that often don’t fit with the contexts and conditions of the places in question (Zein-Elabdin and Charusheela 2). Chakrabarty discusses this in terms of real and abstract labour, where real or ‘living’ labour refers to the social component of labour, involving all the various historical, social, and political conditions of the labourers and their labour (92). Abstract labour refers to the reduction of this real labour into something that can easily be quantified and measured; erasing many of the varied historical, social, and political conditions in the process (Chakrabarty 92). Gibson-Graham’s work sheds light on how orthodox economic theory renders economies and economic practices that don’t conform to the norms of economic rationality and productivity as ‘non-existent’ (Gibson-Graham 5). This means that practices such as indigenous exchange, neighbourhood work, and communal labour are not recognized as credible economic practices, thus being unseen and defined as ‘non-existent’ according to orthodox economic theory (Gibson-Graham 5, 12). In this way, orthodox economic theory not only erases and leaves unseen many of the conditions that are key to labour so as to make it quantifiable, but also does away with practices that don’t conform to its narrow view of credible economic practices. Thus, orthodox economic theories involve abstraction away from specific economic contexts and conditions, especially those that don’t agree with its definition of economic practices.

The inspection policy of Cuba’s National Group for Urban Agriculture (GNAU) uses ‘Abstraction’. The GNAU oversees the 28 subprograms of the agricultural system (Koont 29). It publishes nationally homogeneous production goals, along with quantitative and qualitative lists to measure achievement for all 28 agricultural subprograms (Koont 42). In the vegetable and fresh condiments subprogram, a ‘good’ rating can be achieved by meeting these criteria:

  • There is no weed infestation.

  • There are no unutilized planting beds or canteros.

  • At least 10 different crops are being grown (applies to organopónicos, huertas intensivas with micro-aspersion irrigation, and patios larger than 100 m2).

  • The level of intercropping is acceptable (at least 50%).

  • More than one variety per crop is dominant at the level of the municipality.

  • Plant pests and diseases are adequately controlled.

  • There are no irregularities in the new units of production of the Special Plan.

  • Compensation for the agricultural workers is accurately connected to the final yield produced.

  • More than 90% of the available space in the unit (including the periphery) is being utilized.

  • Sufficient quantities of green beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes are being grown.

  • The unit has fulfilled all its commitments to supply MINED and MINSAP facilities (such as schools and hospitals). (Koont 46)

Applying uniform criteria across Cuba represents an abstracting technique similar to that of orthodox economics. These criteria abstract and reduce the varying organoponicos, parcelas, and patios, pushing urban agriculture towards homogenous production. Thus, GNAU curtails and controls differences within the Cuban urban agricultural system by prohibiting experimentation beyond its boundaries and criteria. However, the criteria allow for some difference within their boundaries. Criteria such as “Plant pests and diseases are adequately controlled” (Koont 46) don’t restrict how these pests and diseases are controlled and provide the opportunity for farmers to vary their approaches based on local contexts and conditions. Nonetheless, GNAU defines those practices that fall outside of its criteria as not being credible practices, emulating orthodox economic theory. Thus, while still allowing for some difference within its bounds, the inspection system works as an abstracting force, replicating the abstracting tendencies of orthodox economic theory.

However, Cuba’s focus on local initiatives and indigenous knowledge in inventing new agricultural techniques and practices opens the system up to real labour and to those practices not considered credible in orthodox economic theory. The promotion of real labour, arising out of local contexts, can be seen in the De Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) program (Koont 79). The program facilitates the horizontal communication of farming techniques and practices by empowering “promoters” who engage with farming techniques based on their personal experience and local history; recognizing local and indigenous knowledge (Koont 80, Gurcon 141). By promoting the local production of knowledge coming from experiments and indigenous history and experience, agricultural techniques from outside the sphere of those imposed by the GNAU are promoted. In doing so, the GNAU promotes a living or real form of production, based on different local contexts in opposition to the abstract form of production imposed by the inspection method. Moreover, greater voice and recognition is given to the farmers who come up with techniques for agricultural production based on their experience and indigenous knowledge. Cuba’s use of locality-specific knowledge for the development of new agricultural techniques includes Cuban tradition in the urban agricultural system. By accounting for indigenous knowledge in the agricultural system, practices that are considered not credible in orthodox economic theory are given a greater importance. While the Cuban agricultural system emphasizes local differences, it puts greater emphasis on abstracted production by putting boundaries on what forms of production are considered credible. In this regard, Cuba’s system only partially challenges the precedent set by orthodox western economic discourse.

Finally, the Cuban urban agricultural system can be analyzed based on its integration of culture and economics. Orthodox economics divides culture and economics, as pointed out by Zein-Elabdin. Her analysis shows how the economy leads to the erasure of cultures which don’t conform to western understandings of what a developed economy looks like, and to the erasure (in hiding from sight) of the specifically European roots of orthodox economic theory (Zein-Elabdin 1157). This means that orthodox economic theory not only disavows cultures which don’t correspond to that of ‘developed’ countries, but also forgets that it was first grounded in a European culture (Zein-Elabdin 1156). What this ultimately does is present economics and culture as two separate and distinct categories, when they are in fact deeply embedded in one another (Zein-Elabdin 1156). According to this analytic framework, the Cuban urban agricultural system challenges the split between economics and culture found in orthodox economic theory.

By placing its motivations in social principles and thus directly linking itself to the culture it is based in, the Cuban urban agricultural system rejects the split between economics and culture. Cuban system draws motivation from social principles such as “community development, job creation, reduction of working hours, development of social services for cooperative members, and increased sustainability and agricultural diversity” (Gurcon 137). Official representations of the urban agricultural system promote the idea of locality, even replacing “the people” in the slogan “of the people, by the people, and for the people” with “the neighbourhood” (Premat, “Havana’s Urban Agriculture” 7). The motivation for the Cuban system lies in its cultural and social embeddedness. Thus, it does not make the same split between economics and culture that is found in orthodox economic theory; instead, it embraces the relation between the two.

Moreover, by including alternative and non-market transactions, Cuba’s system affirms those interactions that orthodox economic theory views as not economically credible, further resisting its universalized ideas. In the San Cristobal Municipality, around 30% of the urban agricultural output goes to self-provisioning and social services such as schools, hospitals, and maternity homes at lower than market prices (Koont 135). Cristobal exemplifies alternative market transactions––transactions are negotiated by cultural understandings rather than competition (Gibson-Graham 15). Farmers sell produce at a reduced price because the Cuban culture values sharing (Premat, “Small-scale Urban Agriculture” 94). Furthermore, agricultural units connect directly with the community through circles of interest, where primary schools form ties with local agricultural units and children happily visit the units (Koont 85). Children learn how to grow seeds, how to respect the environment, and how to treat each other with respect by building social skills (Koont 162). Furthermore, various community building activities are offered within the urban agricultural units. For example: coworkers can enjoy English classes and cultural programs with recreational sport or theatre performances (Koont 148-150). Cuba’s agricultural program does not abide by the rule of competition, but instead values social and cultural connection (Gibson-Graham 15). There is no profit to be found in these community building activities or circles of interest. Instead, this represents the inclusion of those interactions deemed not economically credible by orthodox economic theory because they don’t accord to the norms of economic rationality and profit maximization (Gibson-Graham 5). Thus, by incorporating alternative and non-market transactions into its economic system, the Cuban urban agricultural system resists the assumptions made by orthodox economic theory, further showing itself as an alternative thereto.

The Cuban urban agricultural system breaks with many of the ideas and assumptions present in orthodox economic theory, offering an alternative model for economies. While it partially views workers as simple profit-maximizers as seen in its engagement with material incentives, it also acknowledges the importance of social connection and the ability to care for the welfare of others. Furthermore, while it provides a set of goals for the agricultural units which are abstracted from their local conditions, it also affirms the importance of indigenous knowledge and other such interactions deemed not economically credible by orthodox economic discourse. Finally, instead of viewing economics as separate from culture, Cuba’s system involves both as necessary and interrelated parts of agriculture. Cuba’s urban agricultural system isn’t a complete and radical departure from the ideas and assumptions of orthodox economic theory. However, when an idea or theory posits itself as universal, challenging and resisting even some parts of it shows that alternatives are possible, that different economies are possible. This is precisely what the Cuban urban agricultural system shows in its resilience to the doctrines of orthodox economic theory: that other economies are possible.

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