The contempt for the people harbored by the political-military leadership headed by Raúl Castro is evidenced by its rejoicing over its "success" in signing new contracts to boost the export of charcoal based on sicklebush, or marabú, the invasive plant that sprawls over idle state agricultural lands and constitutes one of the main causes of hunger on the island.
The director of Coratur S.A., one of the many companies making up the state/capitalist monstrosity created by the military, recently reported, exultant, that contracts had been signed to also export sicklebush charcoal to China. Why the elation? People cannot eat it, nor do any animals, but it bolsters the coffers of the military cadre that has usurped power in Cuba. It's that simple.
Instead of clearing the fields and producing food for its starving people, what the dictator and his team have done is add China to their list of sicklebush charcoal customers. They currently export between 60,000 and 80,000 tons per year, in total, to Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Israel, and even the US.
Sicklebush is a nuisance, not a crop
To begin with, according to Botany and scientists, sicklebush is an invasive species, not a crop. Far from an asset, it hampers agriculture. The bush, growing up to eight meters tall, is simply not edible. Its very name in Cuba evokes misery, being synonymous with hunger, as the fields infested with this scourge are no longer arable.
In 1915 botanist Juan Tomás Roig explained that this blight came to Cuba from South America. After the War of Independence, cows and bulls were imported from that region. Containing seeds in their digestive tracts after having grazed near sicklebush pastures, they proceeded to spread them all over the island. It was near the ports where the animals were unloaded, and on the roads where they traveled, that the first sicklebush flourished, Roig explained.
We are talking about a very aggressive invasive bush, full of thorns that hurt the hands when handled. It expands into uncultivated areas, which it renders totally useless. Worst of all, it is very difficult and expensive to eradicate.
It is an outrage that, while Cubans are going hungry, and many are already showing symptoms of malnutrition because the nation's lands are infested with sicklebush, their rulers are actually celebrating its existence, because they are getting richer off it. What ever happened to their supposed Revolution? And the "popular masses?" And what about addressing the food crisis, which is approaching famine levels?
This is happening in a country that the FAO praised in the 1950s for being the leading food exporter in Latin America in proportion to its total population. But "the commander arrived and ordered it to stop," as the song that Carlos Puebla never should have written says.
It is sad, but today, on the same fertile tropical island as then, 30% of the land suitable for cultivation lays idle, overrun by sicklebush, resulting in lands unable to produce even taro, or a liter of milk.
Cuba is the only country in the world, along with aberrant outlier North Korea, in which the state has all but taken over agriculture. It owns 77% of the 6.2 million hectares suitable for agriculture on the island; that is, 4.8 million hectares, of which 2.7 million are state-owned enterprises mimicking the Soviets' sovjoses and Mao Tse Tung's communes. 2.1 million hectares have been leased to private usufruct beneficiaries.
The remaining 23% of Cuban land — 1.4 million hectares — is privately owned by individual farmers or grouped into cooperatives. There, of course, there is no sicklebush, as every last inch of land is cultivated.
Clearing sicklebush is so arduous that prisoners are used for it
Of the state lands, between farms and those in usufruct, more than a million hectares are idle, infested with sicklebush. Many usufructuaries have been unable to remove all of the plant. State companies have given up, having now turned to making charcoal and exporting it.
Eradicating the plant is such grueling work that it entails slave-like conditions. Few workers voluntarily agree to do so to produce charcoal. Thus, the regime employs common and political prisoners, who cannot refuse. This practice has been condemned by the independent press, and by the prisoners themselves, who suffer injuries and burns from the relentless Caribbean sun, out in the open.
They all work under duress. The prisoners are forced to sleep right in the sicklebush fields, in makeshift tents, on beds of dry branches. Sometimes they are forced to sleep "almost without any shelter at all, amidst mud and mosquitoes," according to the Cuban Movement for Reflection and Reconciliation (MCRR). In all cases, the camps are very remote, sometimes about ten km from their workplaces.
Prisoners who do not have money to buy any food must cover this distance twice a day, that is, 40 km a day, for access to subsidized rations. The MCRR has reported that there are two camps in Guantánamo, El Yayal and Ciro Frías, and peasants have reported that they sometimes find prisoners passed out on the roads.
The MININT requires each inmate to deliver at least one ton of sicklebush charcoal each month. On top of all this, it is the prisoners themselves who must find the tools to clear the plant: axes, machetes, saws, etc.
In mid-2019 the Cuban ambassador in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, tweeted a commercial promoting the sale of burnt Cuban sicklebush on Amazon, at $50 a bundle. As expected, he claimed that it was a product "directly from Cuban farmers", omitting the fact that much of this exportable coal is produced by prisoners under disgraceful, forced-labor conditions.
Ciego de Ávila: from producing food to exporting marabou
One example of the absurd agricultural disaster in Cuba with regards to sicklebush is the province of Ciego de Ávila. Once one of the regions with the highest agricultural and livestock yields in Cuba, thanks to its extremely fertile red soils and abundant underground water, under Communism it now stands out not for producing food, as it did before, but for being the largest exporter of charcoal in the country. In 2019, it sold 21,951 tons of charcoal to Europe, worth some 6.9 million dollars, according to the government.
You can imagine how delighted local residents must be to know that their territory is the national leader in the export of burnt sicklebush to Europe, instead of these rich lands being used to produce milk, meat, cheese, pineapple, sugar, vegetables, oranges, bananas, mangoes, loquats or the many other foods that Ciego de Ávila traditionally had once produced, a source of pride for the central region before the Castroist nightmare.