Why the Mayas have an abundance of food, while Cuba can’t feed itself

by Richard L. Thornton

In the late 1950s and 1960s, some Cuban Marxist bureaucrats persecuted mixed-blood Taino farmers, who had thousands of years’ experience in growing vegetables, tubers and fruits with hand tools . . . but did not want to live on cooperatives or be told how to farm by the central government in Havana.

The Havana Waterfront has changed little since 1956.

The Republic of Cuba has about the same population as the State of Georgia (11.38 million), but 71% of its land area (42,426 miles2 or 109,884 km2).  Nevertheless, most of the population is concentrated in compact urban areas, so the national maintains a generally rural or natural landscape. Its semi-tropical climate permits the year-round cultivation of food-producing crops and trees. Almost any temperate climate crop that will grow in the Southeastern United States, including apples and strawberries can be grown in Cuba . . . particularly in the mountain regions.

Yet until recently Cuba was forced to import 80% of its food. Now, it is down to 70% or less, since the government does not have the money to pay for the imported food.  Many Cuban citizens outside the party hierarchy, but also not living in the country, are literally hungry.  This pervasive hunger was the cause of the recent spontaneous food riots in Cuba.

Meanwhile, 31.6% of the Cuban children aged 2 and younger, suffer from anemia (protein deficiency).  An extreme deficiency in fresh fruits and vegetables, always a problem under Marxist rule, now has gotten worse, because of the inefficient food distribution system.  One can buy apples and other fresh fruits in the Havana Airport Terminal, but rarely at the markets for Cuban citizens in Havana.

Cuba’s new leaders created a supposedly temporary food rationing system in 1962 that continues to this day.  The only difference is that the amount of food that can be purchased with a subsidized coupon has drastically declined since the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991 and again when the Venezuelan oil industry collapsed in 2018. It provided Cuba with ultra-cheap fuel. 

Cuba has plenty of skilled tobacco farmers, but fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce. (Source: Cuban Government ad)

Today, the minimal diet is heavily weighted toward sugar, wheat flour, beans and cooking oil.  Today, the ration for beef is ½ kg (1.1 lb) a month, while the ration for chicken is 2 kg (4.4 lb) per month.  It is important to point out that being rationed a certain food, does not mean in Cuba that it will be available.  The approximately 700,000 members of the Communist Party of Cuba, plus professional athletes, military officers and some top musicians have the option of buying food from private vendors . . . if it is available.  The underclass does not.  However, the underclass has become so addicted to being able to get cheap food with minimal work, the government is finding it impossible to end the budget-breaking system.

The current nutritional situation of much of Cuba’s urban population is similar to what happened to most of the western indigenous peoples, when they were locked away on reservations and forced to eat low quality, non-perishable bulk foods issued to them by the US Government.  The diet of the massive underclass of Cuba consists of starchy meals, fried in low quality oil, that are low in protein and highly deficient in the natural energy, fiber and vitamins found in fresh fruits and vegetables.  

Guama, a Taino village in eastern Cuba

I learned the answer to the mystery of why Cuba can’t feed itself about seven months before going to Mexico.  Teresa, my Emory University girlfriend from Miami, had lived the first 12 years of her life in Cuba, but her family was mixed Spanish-Taino Indian from the Dominican Republic.  She said that the vast majority of Cubans did not even know how to grow fruits, vegetables, grains and nut trees . . . nor maintain dairy cow herds.  Making the situation worse, was the Spanish tradition that white people didn’t do physical work. 

Teresa Torres

  Cuba’s economy had been based for hundreds of years on the hacienda-rancho tradition in which slaves or peons either grew large crops of sugar cane or tobacco for export or else worked at large cattle farm operations.  After betraying the Cuban Revolution,  the Castro brothers tried to turn the large haciendas into soviet-style collectives. Inexperienced Communist Party bureaucrats then dictated to the former peons, what should be grown . . . without providing much education on how to grow those crops.  In a panic to produce sugar for trade with the Soviet Union and tobacco to sell as cigars to the world, the party bureaucrats forgot that people have to eat.  

The mixed blood descendants of Cuba’s Taino Indians tended to live in remote locations that were not suitable for sugar cane, tobacco or cattle-ranching. To many new Cuban bureaucrats, Marxism was a religion and the mixed-blood Taino farmers, who did not want to take orders from Havana or wanted to live on traditional subsistence farms were heretics.  Some commissars left Taino families alone. Those living in the eastern mountains were so remote that few officials  Other Tainos were persecuted . . . declared Enemies of the Revolution. They could have their farms seized, the adults put in prison or even be shot.  Thus, the very people, who could have been the teachers for a more productive Cuban agriculture, were cast aside.

Actually,  the official government policy until the 1980s was that the Taino were extinct.  The traditional farmers being persecuted were just enemies of the Revolution.  However, a series anthropological studies beginning in the 1970s proved that there were isolated Taino communities in remote mountainous regions. In 2013, a nationwide DNA survey in 2013 found that overall, Cubans average 8% Native American, but that percentage climbs to 15% in eastern provinces.  Individual communities can average almost to 100% maternal Taino DNA, but almost no paternal Taino DNA.  The Spanish exterminated the males and took the females as concubines.  These days,  the Cuban government promotes the surviving Tainos as tourist attractions.

Maya Farmers Gualberto Casanova (left) and Dionisio Yam Moo stand among young corn plants in Yam Moo’s milpa plot.

Meanwhile in the land of the Maya

Did you notice in my recent video on the Mayas of Campeche that the roads in the residential areas of towns and in the rural landscape were almost devoid of vehicles?  There were no vehicles at the rural compound, where I spent my second night in Campeche.  There were not cars or pickups parked in font of the houses in Hopelchen. There are no burros or horses either. 

That is because the Mayas back then had almost no money.  Most could not even afford a burro, mule or horse.  They did all their gardening and farming with hand tools.  They walked most destinations.

When (in the Campeche video) the Maya mother presented her three female children to be rented for the night, I was absolutely floored.  I had never even heard of such an unthinkable thing.  It was not part of my cultural heritage . . . neither were homosexual lifestyles. Nevertheless, I could not imagine a mother doing that to her daughters unless she was desperate for cash.

Thus, “on paper” in 1970, there was little difference in the standard of living of Cubans and the Maya Indians of Mesoamerica.  Warmongers in Washington feared that Central America, in particular, the Maya lands, were ripe for a Communist takeover.

The monetary poverty of most Mayas was obvious, but I was surprised to see how abundant their food sources were. In reality, they ate better than most North Americas.  They had all the animal/fish protein that they wanted, but also a wide range of fresh vegetables, root plants, fruits and grains.   In other words, they had very healthy, diverse diets.

None of the Mayas had tractors.  Few even had mules or plow horses . . . yet they maintained large cultivated fields with hand tools, plus either maintained terrace complexes in the mountains or raised beds of artificially black soil in the flatlands.

Not only that . . . their hand made clothing was beautiful and incredibly well made.  They kept their clothing and bodies fastidiously clean, even though most Maya houses back then did not have running water nor could they afford factory-made soap . . . assuming that they lived close enough to a store that even sold soap.  They made their detergent by boiling the roots of a certain tree.  It organic soap even had a nice, spicy smell to it!

FLN* comandantes in the small Maya village of Cancun and also at a training camp in eastern Chiapas told me that the Mayas are well aware of how the Communists screwed up the agricultural base of Cuba and in general are hostile to Spaniards anyway.  They considered many aspects of Marxism to be conflictive with the Maya way of life.

The Mayas consider Cubans to be Spanish, not indigenous peoples. Several Mayas living in Yucatan and Campeche told me that they dreamed of the day, when their children did not have to speak Spanish, so, their kids were learning English.  In 2020, an Itza Maya Zapatista from Guatemala, living in Cleveland, GA told me the same thing.

* FLN is now known as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, (EZLN) or Zapatistas.

It was obvious to me that the Mayas have a bountiful and diverse supply of food because they are Master Farmers and a very hard-working people. Cuba does not have a bountiful supply of food, because too few people know how to grow vegetables and fruits, plus the Cuban economy itself is deeply flawed, structurally.  Too many people in urban areas of Cuba have become accustomed to having a free apartment and a cheap monthly food ration without having to work.

My mother grew up in a log house on an escarpment overlooking the Broad River in northeastern Georgia. They grew most of the food they ate and bartered for manufactured goods.

A self-sufficient family-farm

My mother was fond of telling me her experiences of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s on a subsidence farm, overlooking the Broad River in Elbert County, Georgia. They seldom had any money at all until my grandfather got a temporary job with the WPA, building highways 500 miles to the south in Florida.  

Crops regularly grown by my grandfather included wheat for making bread, corn for making bread and feeding livestock, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, oats for feeding the mules, tomatoes, green beans, several types of beans to be dried, sweet peppers, hot peppers, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, okra, green peas, cabbage, collards, turnip greens, carrots, apples, peaches, plums, pears, blackberries, elderberries, strawberries and grapes.

They grew most everything they ate, plus raised sheep for meat, plus wool to barter for factory-woven cloth to make winter clothing. The cotton was sold to buy cotton cloth for the rest of their clothing, plus fertilizer and seeds.  They raised chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle for meat and dairy cows for milk, cheese and butter.  They owned three mules for plowing, personal transportation and pulling the wagon.

My grandfather carved wooden bowls and platters for the kitchen and handles for tools.  My great-uncle Dewey was a blacksmith and so made the steel parts of tools.  My grandmother wove baskets to store items. Yes, they were maintaining a long tradition of being master farmers, but they worked very hard. 

My mother said that even though they had to work hard and had no money, they felt blessed because they had an abundance of healthy food and owned their land.  Many people in the cities and in the rural southern landscape were hungry during these times.  The folks, my grandparents contemptuously called “good-for-nothing, edge-of-towner white trash,” were clueless how to grow their own food at a sufficient scale for year round nutrition. They often bought dried beans or salted meat with what little money they had.  They were chronically sick and performed poorly in school, due to their inadequate diets and lack of education by their parents.

The factory-made items in my mother’s log home were obtained by bartering eggs and butter with men, who drove “jitney buses” around Georgia’s rural landscape.  He sold cloth, thread, scissors, needles, combs, razors, mirrors, pots, pans, cast iron kettles and such.  

In the shoals beneath their farm, they trapped fish in woven baskets and caught massive freshwater turtles with large hooks, baited with chicken gizzards. My grandmother cooked her famous Southern Fried Turtle with these turtles.

My mother went to her first movie theater at the age of 16. At the age of 17, my grandfather took her in a mule wagon to a bus stop in an adjacent county, where she would head off to attend college with a full scholarship, because of being valedictorian of her high school class . . . the first person in her family that the State of Georgia had allowed to graduate.  She washed and ironed the cloths of the wealthy girls in order to buy factory-made dresses and makeup, so she wouldn’t “look poor.”   She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Georgia.  She went on latter to get a Masters degree and a Six Year Education Degree.  She was ultimately chosen State Teacher of the Year and Mother of the Year in Georgia.

It is not how much money one has that determines, who you are.  It is not what strangers say you are that determines what you are.  It is what you do with the resources that you have available that is important.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is touching and very true. Cuban has a great climate for planting and harvesting yet people are starving. A big part is because you don’t own what you sow but also as you said, they don’t know the techniques and the ways of the elders that did know of farming. Sadly the indigenous population there assimilated too well after resistance. A lot was lost. Lives, freedom, heritage and generational knowledge of their land and identity. It’s the difference with the Mayas of Mexico. Many were able to escape to areas that colonists would not go to ( mountains, rough terrain) or were not interested in for lack of gold or precious stones. They preserved their ways, not all but many tribes preserved their culture and their ways by not assimilating

    Liked by 3 people

  2. These are wise words and I agree. It is not possessions that give our identity or our value nor what others think or how others view us but who we are as humans towards others, how we take care of what has been place around us, the land that sustains us and the creatures whom we share it with!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I witnessed the extreme rationing of food whilst I visited Cuba. I wasn’t allowed to buy a bread roll from the bakery, yet I was allowed to buy as many bakery sweets as I wanted. Most plates of food you buy at restaurants have the standard very small quantities of sliced tomato and cucumber. It’s so sad how they can’t enjoy their own land. It’s also sad how they are so highly controlled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and I love the Cuban people, Cuban music and Cuban food . . . but one cannot deny that their dreams were betrayed by those who took dictatorial control of the nation, after the Cuban Revolution. Many of the Cuban patriots, who did the actual fighting in the Revolution were killed off afterward.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In addition to your comment, when I was in Cuba, speaking of fidel castro was awkward with the locals, as they aren’t free to voice their true opinions. One of them even told me that it’s forbidden to speak. Quite sad really, when the people of Cuba are silenced. The Cubans were friendly in my experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post thank you Rchard Other comments here I also read and found them extremely interesting. It takes a lot of determination which involves pride of course to retain the culture one is brought up with

    Liked by 1 person

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