Veradero, Cuba: Deep in Matanzas Province our delegation recreated the experience of the Venceremos Brigade of more than 30 years ago, when hundreds, if not thousands, of left leaning folks made their way to Cuba to provide voluntary labor to help bring in the sugar harvest, create the new economy, and save the revolution. This time though we were on a citrus plantation, or what my grandfather and father in Orange County, California would have called an “orange ranch.”
We listened at considerable length to the manager of the orange operation extol on the size of the operation (40000 hectares or close to 100000 acres – a big fruit stand indeed). It took us a while, but from his telling it seems that there were over 12000 workers before the collapse of the soviet bloc and pretty much full production on the land. Now, ten years later, there are 7500 workers approximately with only about half of the acreage in citrus, some 20000 hectares, and the rest in a bit of everything from cattle to whatever. Interestingly, he claimed that the production was now more than the records that they had achieved in those days with 60% of the workers and half the land. Answering questions, it put it simply – they had been inefficient and the events of the special period forced them to make changes in technology and become more efficient.
To the grave disappointment of many of our delegation who had heard or read otherwise, the manager had to bring the news that there was nothing particularly organic about this operation expect for their understanding that Cubanito – their marketing brand in Europe – was going to have to change over time to meet the demands for organic fruits in the high end of the market. The simple, straight story, similar to the day before – so similar that our great translator, Eddie Brown, pulled my shirt sleeve and nodded after the manager answered the question, that it was the same as what I had gathered at the hotel, was that this operation was also part of the foreign investment cycle. It seems that the Israeli’s supplied the agricultural credit loans that allowed the Cuban’s to plant and harvest and then pay off the loans after the oranges were shipped and sold. Cuba is barred from regular ag loans, so one can only cringe at the rates that they may be paying the Israeli’s for their help here.
My grandfather, Erdman Rathke, was a foreman on an orange ranch in Orange County when oranges were what that part of California was about. My dad often told us about going into the groves and helping put out smudge pots when a freeze might threaten the crop or for one thing or another. I can remember when we used to visit my grandparents going out in the groves near my Uncle Woody and Aunt Lee’s place, which seemed little more than a clearing between the rows of trees. The smell of citrus and the sweetness of the fruit as it comes of the tree create a special connection with the soil that lingers for a lifetime.
Now that grove is a subdivision and has been for several decades and my uncle’s name graces a street on the land where ranch houses were grown. Now one can also drive, as we did some years ago, along the coast parallel to Pueblo on north to Tampico in Mexico through mile after mile of orange trees as far as the eye can see and wonder whether anyone in the US, much like Cuba, will be able to compete. Now specially designed tractors drive through the spaces between the trees, shake the designed fruit off the trees, and quicken the harvest and reduce the labor in California and Florida.
But, now in Cuba, we were still going row by row by hand with long, plastic sacks for the oranges, trying to make our tonnage and get some sense of work in the fields that is fast passing by all of us, exepct for the low cost of labor here and the high cost of technology and fuel. It’s still all in the wrist when you are picking oranges, just as my grandfather taught and my father, and even I knew, you twist them off and keep both hands moving towards the tree to fill the sack and catch the truck to dump the load. Over and over and over again.