We took a tour on horseback of the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence) outside the town of Viñales. Our tour guide is a friend of the couple who own the house we were staying in - the one with a balcony and great food. I cannot remember his name, but it started with an F so I will just call him Fred.
Fred is a farmer whose family has lived in the valley for generations. He told us that, before the Revolution began in 1959, the whole valley was owned by one man. All the farmers had to pay him high rents every year. After the Revolution, Castro imposed agrarian reforms, granting farm lands to those people who worked them. Fred's grandparents and aunts and uncles went from being share croppers to land owners almost overnight.
The crop most commonly grown in the valley is tobacco, the kind that is used to make the famous Cuban cigars. We stopped at a secador, a barn where the tobacco leaves are dried. The building has walls made of palm leaves, topped with a tin roof. If Cuban tobacco has an ad campaign, the man rolling cigars inside this secador would be the spokesman. He was like the Marlboro man of Cuba.
I know he is a man of few words, but in this case I would be the Marlboro man's interpreter.
He explained the process in Spanish and then I explained in English to Brian and the French couple sitting with us. Cuban Marlboro man told us about how the farmer starts the seedlings and selects the healthiest ones to plant in the field. Once he picks the leaves, he lets them dry in the secador, then sprays them with a mixture of honey, vanilla, cinnamon and rum and lets them ferment in a palm leaf box. Since tobacco is a cash crop, the farmers are required to sell 90% of their harvest to the government. The other 10% they can sell privately or keep for their own use.
Part of the reason Cuban tobacco is special is that it is organically grown. And not just tobacco - no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used in Cuban farming at all. It's not because Cubans are on a health kick or trying to be more green. They didn't have a choice. When the USSR collapsed in the early 90s, Cuba lost most of its access to fertilizer, animal feed and pesticides. The Cuban scientists and academics went back in time, promoting traditional and sustainable methods of farming that had been effective long before chemicals were used. The effort has been a success, and is considered a model for sustainable agriculture on a large scale.
While the traditional ways of making fertilizer and pesticides are still effective, the traditional ways or working the land are not. Only the big, government-run farms have machinery. Small farmers still use hand-operated plows drawn by 2 oxen. We stopped to watch a farmer working his field. "With a tractor," Fred told us, "that would take 20 minutes. With a plow and oxen it takes 3 days."
He explained that the agriculture ministry has launched new programs to support farmers. In the past, they mostly cared about the cash crops - tobacco, sugar cane and coffee - grown on large farms. But since Cuba imports 60% of its food, the government has decided it's more cost-effective to support farmers growing foods like beans, corn and vegetables than to ship them in from somewhere else. Fred hopes that this government support will lead to more machinery like tractors for himself and his neighbors, Marlboro man included.
- Thanks for coming to my blog. It started as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and now has become an ongoing project. I'm an American living in Germany and trying to travel whenever I can. I write about my experiences as an expatriate (the interesting ones and the embarrassing ones), and about my travels. There are some recurring characters in this blog, particularly my husband Brian and several of our friends. The title comes from the idea that living in a foreign country means making a lot of mistakes. So the things you used to do easily you now have to try over and over again. Hopefully, like me, you can laugh at how idiotic it feels. If you have happened upon my blog, then welcome. Knowing that people are reading what I write makes me keep going. Feel free to write comments or suggestions for future posts.