Tractors In Cuba, From Ghosts To Orishas / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The old tractor on La Isleña farm in San Juan y Martinez, Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)
The old tractor on La Isleña farm in San Juan y Martinez, Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)

“Do not put me in the dark to die like a tractor”
(popular parody of a line from José Martí)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 25 February 2016 – Two pieces of news have raised hopes among Cuban farmers. One is that the United States company Cleber LLC will install a tractor factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM). The second is the announcement that China will open a line of credit so that the island can buy YTO brand Chinese tractors to use in the rice program.

To encourage more hopes, the newspaper Granma dedicated an article today to an explanation of the situation of the 62,668 tractors registered in the country, of which 95% have been in use for more than 30 years. The article reports the number of these machines, their distribution by area, what they are used for, and how many tires or tracks they had. But they said nothing about the future of these obsolete vehicles nor the new ones to come.

However, Cubans learned long ago that when the river is roaring it is because it is carrying stones, but when you can’t hear it it’s doing the same. It’s been a long time since anyone has repeated from a podium or in a meeting with senior officials that plowing with oxen is better than doing it with farm machinery.

The thousand small tractors the US firm proposes to produce annually are optimal for use with organoponic cultivation methods and they suggest selling them to independent farmers in Cuba. The tractors will enter the market under the name Oggún, one of the main orishas of the Yoruba religion tied to technology and surgeons.

A rural legend, repeated by old already-retired tractor drivers, tells that at the end on the seventies in the San Juan y Martinez nursery area, a huge pit was dug to bury hundreds of destroyed tractors. Whole machines buried as scrap before handing them over to the peasants. State ownership “was ready to die” before making the transfer to the calloused hands of the private producers.

Time passed and the “Special Period” arrived and only then was the decision made to hand over whatever was unusable. Alfredo Perez, operator of a ’56 Ford belonging to La Isleña farm in Pinar del Río, who tells how this transfer worked. “As far as I know, in the nineties the state enterprises began giving the private farmers some farm machinery,” he says.

The farmer remembers that in most cases the tractors involved were in such poor condition, that in all the bureaucratic paperwork it appeared as the sale of decommissioned equipment, not property. From there it was up to the farmer to find a way to do what the state had failed to do despite all its resources, which is what they did. “They handed over a ghost that had to be resuscitated,” remembers Perez.

Despite the poor mechanical condition of the equipment, it was necessary to have an endorsement letter from the president of the cooperative and a commitment to lend the vehicle to whatever entity needed it , including the police.

The current practice is that when a state enterprise receives a new fleet of machinery, they hand over the old equipment to the cooperatives. Sometimes the machines are in terrible condition, other times in pretty good shape or even the company itself can help the cooperative get the parts to make it work.

Another way to acquire a tractor is to have the great good fortune to know the owner of a piece of American-made equipment that they want to sell. The Soviets awarded by another system what they weren’t allowed to market. The price of these “agricultural almendrones*” could vary between 100,000 to 150,000 Cuban pesos, depending on their condition and the farm implements included.

Alfredo only knows one farmer to whom they sold “ten years ago, a new tractor, and it was Alejandro Robaina,” the famous tobacco farmer of Vueltabajo. The farmer has some reservations and wonders if “the Americans” are going to distribute through the state or market them freely.

With the wisdom of a man of the countryside who knows that nothing is certain until the harvest is gathered in, Alfredo knows that tying the tractors to Oggeun is very premature, “because it is not even confirmed that they will build the factory,” and “only time will tell.”

Increasing food production is a priority for the State, so as to be able to replace imports and meet demand. The shortages and consequent rise in prices generate controversies of every kind, but there is something everyone agrees on: the solution is to produce more and for this, willpower isn’t enough, tools are needed. The farmers need better resources and marketing tractors puts to the test the old governmental prejudices: the Cuban countryside, stuck in the 20th Century, is facing the modernity it needs.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrones” (from the word for almond) is what Cubans call the pre-Revolution American cars still circulating in Cuba.