Drought and slaughter hurt
Cuba's once-rich beef, milk industries.
By Tracey Eaton
The Dallas Morning News
HOLGUIN, Cuba - (KRT) - It was a novel idea: Shrink cows to the size of
dogs through genetic engineering. Feed them grass grown indoors and put
one in every home. Finally, Cuba's chronic milk shortage would be over.
But Fidel Castro's quest for miniature cows went nowhere. Scientists say
he was a bit ahead of his time.
Now, 17 years later, Cubans say they wish the plan had worked because
milk is still scarce and the cattle industry is in dire straits.
The illegal slaughter of the animals, a lack of money for cattle feed
and the most severe drought in decades is ravaging both milk and beef
More than 100 head of cattle are dying every day because they don't have
enough food and water, Cuba's official media reported in April. Water
levels are dropping at reservoirs in eastern Cuba. And there's no rain
"Our wells are dry," said Luz Agrispina, who lives in the countryside
near the eastern town of Guardalavaca. "I've planted corn and beans, but
nothing will grow. We haven't had a good rain in at least a year."
Some critics say poor planning and inefficiency, not the drought, are to
blame for much of the trouble.
"Before Castro, you could see cattle all over," said Arturo Riera,
executive committee president of the National Association of Cuban
Cattlemen, a 1,000-member Miami group. "Everything has changed."
Riera's family had a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in Cuba before the 1959
revolution. Now, he says, the number of cattle has plunged from 6.3
million in 1958 to less than 2 million today.
"The regime did nothing to prevent the slaughter of countless head of
cattle," Riera said.
Officials at Cuba's Agriculture Ministry declined requests for
information on cattle and the drought.
Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington
Institute, a private research organization based in Arlington, Va.,
said: "Cuba put two good, radical ideas into practice: allowing farmers
to sell their surplus, and allowing freely priced sales at 300 farmers'
markets around the country. The result was a new source of food, beyond
the libreta (the food rations Cubans receive). And the food at farmers'
markets is often of good variety and quality.
"I don't doubt that if the state lightened its hand even more, the
results would again be positive," Peters said.
Cattle ranching has a rich history in Cuba. Spanish conquistador Diego
Velazquez, the former governor of Cuba, brought 970 head of cattle to
the island in the years 1512 to 1524. Their numbers multiplied, and many
were exported throughout the Americas.
By the mid-1500s, cattle hide had replaced gold as the main currency of
exchange in Cuba, said Riera, whose family got its start in cattle
ranching on the island 400 years ago.
"The cattle industry was the No. 1 source of income to the Cuban economy
up to the end of the 18th century," he said.
From about 1800 until 1958, there was at least one head of cattle for
every person in Cuba, he said.
After the revolution, the government confiscated all cattle ranches
larger than 66 acres. Sugar production became the priority and the
number of cattle dwindled.
Today, the cattle industry isn't the only rural enterprise that's
Sugar and coffee crops are at or near their lowest levels in a half
century. And Cuba is forced to import hundreds of tons of food and
produce every year from the United States and other nations to feed its
11 million people.
Castro loyalists say they've made great strides. They've converted
sprawling, unproductive state-run farms into small, cost-effective
cooperatives. They've created new incentives for growers, allowing them
to sell surplus crops to private farmers' markets instead of the state.
And they've set up internationally renowned organic farms in Havana and
other cities, producing more than 3 million tons of vegetables every
The tobacco industry is another bright spot, they say. Workers have
rebuilt scores of tobacco seed nurseries and leaf drying houses that
were destroyed by Hurricane Lili in 2002. And this year, industry
officials expect a bumper crop, enough tobacco to produce more than 150
million premium cigars.
Still, the drought is a concern throughout the countryside.
Not one of Cuba's 14 provinces has had even 60 percent of its usual
rainfall this year, according to Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
And May was the country's third-driest in 43 years, the newspaper said.
Alarmed, workers are trucking in water to more than 200,000 head of
cattle in eastern Cuba.
"City people take water for granted," said Sara Perez, 35, who lives on
a farm near Guardalavaca. "They don't know that farmers are suffering."
Her home is perched on a hillside overlooking the turquoise-blue
Caribbean Sea. And it would probably be a paradise, maybe even the site
of a spectacular hotel, if only there were enough water, she said.
"We can't grow anything, so we have very little money. That's why I
can't afford to feed my pigs. They have to eat whatever they can find on
the ground," Perez said.
According to the government, more than 1,200 wells have dried up in
Holguin province. To increase the water supply, laborers are working day
and night to build a conduit from the Cauto River, the nation's largest,
to the Guirabo reservoir. The project, set to be complete in August, is
expected to supply water to tens of thousands of homes and ranches.
Still, hoards of cattle are likely to perish in Holguin and neighboring
Camaguey province over the next few months, farmers say.
To try to strengthen the herd, government officials have turned to the
They bought 148 head of U.S. dairy cattle last summer and have signed
contracts for beef cattle, to be shipped this year. And they hope to buy
But for Riera, it's too little, too late.
"They buy 50 head of cattle. That's not going to do a darn thing. You
cannot improve an industry that had more than 6 million cattle
He said it will take years to restore the Cuban cattle industry to its
"The decline has been steady," he said. "In the '50s, we didn't lose
cattle to drought. The problem now is they've created a lot of dams and
artificial lakes, and that's affected the environment. They've messed up
the ecosystem. There are a lot of areas where the land is covered with
water or swampland. It's useless land."
Riera, 64, lives in Miami. He said he hopes to return to Cuba someday -
after Castro is gone - and help rebuild the cattle industry.
He even dreams of getting back his land.
But Castro loyalists say that will never happen, that the revolution
Cattle are sacred in Cuba. A colorful etching spotted at an Old Havana
crafts market underscored that point, depicting a cow saying, "I'm worth
more than you."
That's because a person can get more jail time for killing a cow than
killing a human, under Cuban law. Cow killers can get four to 10 years
in prison under a toughened crime law adopted in January. Those who
transport or sell the meat from an illegally slaughtered cow can get
three to eight years. Providing beef at an unauthorized restaurant or
workplace can fetch two to five years. And buying contraband beef is
punishable by three months to one year in jail or a steep fine.
Authorities also have the power to confiscate all or part of the
property of anyone involved in black-market cattle dealings.
In contrast, the jail sentence for homicide is generally seven to 15
years, unless there are aggravating circumstances. Suspects involved in
contract hits, kidnap-murders, sadistic or perverse killings, the murder
of police officials and other acts can get from 15 years in jail to the
Who knows what would have happened if anyone had ever harmed the
legendary Ubre Blanca or White Udder, Cuba's most famous dairy cow?
In 1982, the cow produced 28 gallons of milk in a day, about four times
more than average. Later, it produced 6,309 gallons in 305 days. Both
are world records.
The cow died in 1985. Cuban scientists are reportedly trying to clone it
using frozen tissue samples. Meanwhile, the animal has been stuffed and
is on display at Cuba's cattle institute.
Milk remains in short supply in Cuba and is rationed. Mothers with
infants younger than 1 are allowed to buy containers of milk for about 2
cents, a heavily subsidized price. Families with pregnant women or
children younger than 7 can buy 2.2-pound bags of powdered milk for less
than 10 cents.
All other Cubans pay the market price. A container of milk goes for
Beef is another luxury, akin to caviar in Cuba. Few Cubans can afford it
on their salaries, which average $12 per month.
Flank steak fetches $4.30 per pound. Better cuts of beef are often
unavailable in stores.
Only state-run restaurants are allowed to serve beef. Much of the meat
is set aside for tourists, expected to number 2 million this year.
© 2004, The Dallas Morning News.