The Decline of Tobacco in Cuba
The tobacco plant, known in South America for thousands of years, was used by Cuba's indigenous people as a medication and a narcotic. They smoked it, sniffed it, drank concoctions of it, and employed it in religious rituals.
Unlike cattle and coffee, which was transported from Spain to the Americas, tobacco made the opposite journey. It was carried from Cuba to Spain by Rodrigo de Jeréz and Luis de Torres, two members of Christopher Columbus's crew during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.
Its commercial cultivation was initiated on the banks of rivers by Spanish emigrants who, establishing themselves in Cuba, thereby becoming criollos, came to constitute the Cuban peasant class. The leaf's cultivation - which, due to the care, delicacy and attention to detail it demanded, could not be produced by slaves - was carried out by these emigrants, known as vegueros.
Because of the demand for it in Europe and the quality of the Cuban soil in areas of the country like Vuelta Abajo, located in the western province of Pinar del Río, and the region of Sancti Spiritus, in the center of the Island, from the late 17th century until the first quarter of the 18th tobacco was the country's leading source of revenue.
Although between the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was surpassed by sugar and coffee, tobacco represented, and continues to represent, Cuba’s flagship product in terms of employment and contribution to GDP.
In 1958 tobacco production in Cuba had hit 58,202 tons. However, for the reasons stated above, there was a drop so severe that today, in 2016, the 27,000 tons produced is touted as a great achievement – less than half of what was produced almost six decades ago, and similar to the annual averages way back in the period from 1904 to 1910: 27,384 tons.
The problem is that the State has decided to provide landowners and usufruct right holders with minimal resources, but without giving up its monopolistic control – similar to what Spain did prior to 1817, when the vegueros finally managed to overturn the monopoly known as the Estanco del Tabaco, and landowners began to freely sell their crops, its sale depending on its quality.
With tobacco, as with the rest of Cuba's agricultural production, the revolutionary Government that took power in 1959, ignorant of the characteristics of its cultivation, and the laws governing economic phenomena, attempted to boost production on State lands using wage labor. Failing in this, it then sought to do so through its "Basic Units of Cooperative Production." But as the State continued to retain ownership of the land, this also failed.
In 2008 the Government of Raúl Castro began to distribute part of these lands on the basis of individual usufruct rights, with the aim of incentivizing higher production, but this has not yielded the expected results either. The futility of these measures is evident after examining the production figures from 2009 to 2014, during which it fell by 21%.
The figures demonstrate an ascending relationship between the production of employees on State-owned land, that of usufruct holders, and that of farmers who actually own the land they cultivate. Several months ago, chatting with farm workers in the municipality of San Juan y Martínez, in Pinar del Rio – one of Cuba's highest-producing areas, accounting for some 70% of the leaves used in the industry to make Cuba's signature, hand-rolled Habanos cigars – they explained to me that because of the damage caused by the unseasonable rains, and the high relative humidity, the tobacco harvest in the province suffered losses that will damage the current 2015-2016 campaign. However, it is revealing that, between owners and usufruct holders, the largest losses were suffered by the latter; which brings to mind the old saying that: "there is nobody blinder than he who does not want to see."
The decline in tobacco production is due to the fact that current conditions are similar to those of two centuries ago: the farmer has to sell all the tobacco he produces to a State monopoly, at the price it sets. In return they are allowed to keep 1% of the production for smoking (personal consumption), but with a ban on its sale to third parties, forcing them to sell it covertly to compensate for their low earnings just to survive. They are also prevented from participating in the production process after the drying of the leaves, with the State taking charge, exclusively, of the rest of the productive activities, which are those that return the highest profits.
The conditions imposed on producers of tobacco are more abusive because State officials responsible for their commercialization decide on its quality, which determines its purchase price, and the farmer is almost always adversely affected.
It is these negative factors that generally account for the decline in tobacco production. To solve the problem, according to the farmers I talked with, there are four essential factors involved in the production that must be taken into account: the cooperative, the bank, insurance, and sales – without which it is impossible to achieve the sustained growth of tobacco production and the productivity that the country and its farmers need. The solutions would be:
1) Allowing usufruct holders to become landowners and, from there, along with those who are already owners, permitting their participation in the entire production process, not only in that of the tobacco leaves. 2) Acknowledging the right of free association for cooperation and the defense of their interests. 3) Giving usufruct holders the legal status required to receive loans directly and not only through cooperatives created by the State for this purpose. 4) Allowing farmers to freely sell their crops.
If these measures are not taken, it will be impossible to bolster tobacco production in a sustained manner – an industry in which the country boasts all the right climatic characteristics, experience and expertise, and a tradition that makes the Habano famous worldwide.