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The Decline of Cuban Coffee

After analyzing the decline of the cattle industry on the island, Dimas Castellanos analyzes the causes of the debacle in its coffee production.

La Habana

Coffee, growing on bushes in tropical regions, of the genus Coffea, came to Cuba from La Española, just like cattle did. Don José Antonio Gelaber brought it in 1748, founding the first coffee plantation in Wajay.

In the 1760s Havana's oligarchy set its sights on a new objective: to make Cuba the world's leading producer of sugar and coffee. In this effort several factors converged: Cuba's soil, suitable for the cultivation of these beans, enough land to produce it, and the Haitian Revolution of 1791, which drove away thousands of French settlers who knew how to grow coffee. Arriving in Cuba, they settled in the country's eastern region, especially in mountainous areas of Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and Baracoa, where they founded large coffee plantations that today produce more than 85 percent of the nation's coffee.

Thanks to these initiatives coffee plantations spread, as evidenced by the following data: in 1803 there were about 108,000 coffee plants on the island, while by 1807 there were 1,110,000; exports increased tenfold between 1790 and 1805; and Cuba ended up determining coffee prices in many European capitals. In 1827 Cuban agriculture boasted 2,067 coffee plantations, and in 1830 Cuba was the world's biggest exporter of coffee, a position held by Haiti until revolution broke out there.

Its massive coffee production generated the habit of drinking coffee several times a day on the island, which became a hallmark of Cubans' daily lives. This practice, coming to form part of Cuban culture, boosted demand at such a rate that the island's production was entirely dedicated to domestic consumption, and it was necessary to resort to importing to make up for the shortage of beans.

Beginning in 1925 governments enacted several protectionist measures that served to modify the relationship between production and importation. In 1930 Cuba managed to cover domestic demand and to start exporting again. According to sources at the Ministry of Agriculture, in the 40s Cuba was once again the world's largest exporter of coffee.

Government measures and the efforts of Cuban coffee growers led to increases in production. In 1946 the figure was 573,713 quintals (26,390.7 tons); in 1951 it rose to 714,000 quintals (32,844 tons); and peaked with the 1960-1961 coffee harvest, when the country produced 60,000 tons.

50 years after this achievement, the 2010-2011 harvest produced just 6,000 tons (10 times less). The effect of this drastically-reduced production was addressed by the President of the State Council, General Raúl Castro, at the National Assembly of the People's Power on December 18, 2010: "next year we cannot afford to spend almost 50 million dollars on coffee imports to maintain the quota at present distributed to consumers, including newborn children. We plan, as this is an unavoidable necessity, as we did until 2005, to mix it with peas, much cheaper than coffee, which costs us almost three thousand dollars a ton, while peas cost only 390."

For the following harvest, that of 2011-2012, without taking into account all the factors involved in the decline, government authorities issued some measures yielding an increase in production. 7,100 tons (1,100 tons more than the previous harvest) were produced. However, one of those measures taken was to extend the harvest time, with the consequent damage to the following harvest. Despite the cost paid to achieve this growth, at this rate it would take 48 years of steady growth to equal the 60,000 tons harvested in 1960-61.

Events sufficed to demonstrate the inadequacy of the measures taken to achieve sustained growth. For example, in the municipality of Niceto Pérez, Guantánamo, at one of the largest producers of beans production fell by more than two thirds.

Again, instead of attacking the root causes, the useless tactic of ideological appeal was employed: on September 20, 2012, Orlando Lugo Fontes, then president of the National Association of Small Farmers, an organization representing State interests, called for an organized coffee harvest. But the producers' lack of interest, the plants' ageing, and the longer harvest time rendered the leader's harangue useless. The result was another drop in coffee production.

During the 2013-2014 harvest production fell to 6,105 tons, less than the previous year, and ten times less than 1960-61. It was an amount that proved insufficient to meet domestic demand, making it necessary, as had happened in the early 20th century, to buy coffee on the foreign market. The same thing happened in 2010 and 2011, years in which 18,000 tons had to be imported, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

For the 2014-15 harvest two of the country's eastern provinces predicted that the result would vary little from that of the previous harvest. Unwilling to streamline economic relations, the State has taken a series of measures to boost production in the 2015-16 harvest to 15,000 tons; a figure which, if achieved, would still fall far short of the 24,000 that the country needs to consume and export.

The State's monopolistic control, storage prices, the countless restrictions to which producers are subjected, restrictions on marketing a portion of crops outside commitments imposed by the State, land ownership relationships, the lack of an economic model capable of producing efficiently, and the State's fear that a middle class will develop, are among the main causes for the decline of Cuba's coffee industry.

The clearest manifestation of the Government's unwillingness to reverse this decline was the negative response by the National Bureau of the Association of Small Farmers - without even consulting producers - to a proposal by the US State Department to allow producers to directly export Cuban coffee to America.

With typically totalitarian obstinacy, and ignoring the real causes of the problem, the Cuban government insists on producing about 24,000 tons of coffee annually by the year 2020.

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