Category Archives: Personal Writings

Orange Ranch

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.



Havana, Cuba: The notion that one can have constant virtual companeros and companeras as one travels the road and drives the work forward has a certain strange attraction.  God knows it helps to have company on the road!  There is a certain comfort to believing there are fellow travelers among us on the journeys of our work and lives, isn’t there?  In fact we often overstate the numbers to create the allusions of masses in motion with us even if we can only see a small few from day to day, so the search for other venues — even virtual — to move us all seems worth some effort in moving people froward.

So we will try this “blog” thing for a time and see what develops.  Years ago I did something for quite some time called the “chief organizer reports,” which were a daily staple on our radio stations, KNON in Dallas and KABF in Little Rock, and even before that when we were a smaller band I used to file similar “chief organizers reports” as we were growing on a weekly or monthly basis to keep people up to date and let them try to find a way to share in the experience and contribute constantly to the growing excitement of our work and world.

In short I see these notes as a part of that tradition even though with some differences.  With written reports one can see the staff, leaders, and members and try to imagine their interests and reconcile what one has to say and wants to say with some of what they might want to hear.  In radio it was much, much harder because there was a constant sense of speaking into the void and too often into an echo where one can only hear one’s own voice and other than that — silence — which was the reason in fact that after many years I simply stopped doing them.  I had been an organizer way too long who thrived on working with people to enjoy a medium where I could not seem to feel the connection.  In moving forward in this new direction I wonder if it will be a mixture of the two experiences.  On the one hand feeling like I will really know some of the people who might share an interest in this journey and being totally clueless about the rest of what moves people to read — much less respond — to these daily notes.

Whatever?  We take these small steps in no small part to see what lies around the corner, so with this brief introduction, let’s get to it!

I write this first report from Havana.  Yes, the famous Havana — Cuba behind the blockade!  I am here as part of a bilateral commission looking at the state of developing labor law and unions in Cuba.  I am also interested given the ruined state of the Cuban economy in trying to understand here, as in so many other places, how people are able to piece together a living as part of the informal economy, or what many of us know as contingent labor in the United States.

Having spent most of yesterday simply negotiating the passage ways between the pre-dawn of New Orleans, where I call home, and then through Miami International in one tedious line after another, to finally arrive mid-afternoon in Havana, I can not say that I know much of anything about Cuba yet other than how to sort and match the early impressions with what I had read or wondered.   The Malecon is every bit as beautiful and literally breathtaking when the stiff breeze comes off the ocean against a bright afternoon blue sky, as the National Geographic pictures one had seen only months before.   Indeed there are streets full of vintage American cars, particularly Chevys and Oldsmobiles, but they are vastly outnumbered by other, even new editions, from elsewhere, so they seem novel, but more in a California car-club way than a standard way of life manner as one had somehow expected.  And, as expected, the buildings in Centro are a study in rusting wrought iron and decaying stucco and plaster as the architecture is literally crumbling around the streets that are also in a state of confusion between pavement and rubble, but there is more rehab and construction than one might have imagined and there are signs of pothole repair even in the back streets.

The most powerful recognition though is the lack of commercialization.  Billboards advertise political slogans here, not merchandize and modern convenience.  There are very, very few stores in the neighborhoods.  Fewer restaurants.  There are things being sold for sure, just not in an accustomed way in the normal marketplace.

One also is frankly surprised by the majesty of the city.  It is stately and elegant in a way that one did not quite expect.

And, of course even though one understands intellectually the impact of a blockade, being on the other side of the line produces a different recognition of its reality.  There is no hot sauce or tobasco for your eggs in the morning — of course neither are there really eggs without a huge struggle.  We were staying in a hotel owned and operated by the CTC — the Cuban labor federation.  There is no menu.   There was simply a choice of what one might want between fish, beef, and pork with the standard fare — which was altogether adequate for us, but gave more than a sense of how hard one it might be compared to the standard fare.

Impressions.  Only that.  As we dig in to the program today and throughout the week, we will get a better sense of what impressions harden into truths or seem foolishly naive on deeper inspection and understanding.