Our man in Havana on its farms and gardens

A farmer at the Organopónico Plaza. Photos by Bill Weinberg

BY BILL WEINBERG | The working-class districts of Central Havana — the most densely inhabited part of the Cuban capital —remind me of the Lower East Side in the 1980s. The buildings are generally decaying, although they are much older than any in Alphabet City, and the sounds of salsa music and crowing roosters fill the air.

There is a critical difference, however: Nobody pays any rent. Nearly all residents are the owners of their dwellings, pursuant to the expropriation of the old landlords in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. The booming tourist economy is bringing in lots of offshore money in the adjacent historic district of Old Havana, and an emerging quasi-gentrification can be seen there. But the real estate market is still heavily restricted, and there appears to be no risk of displacement — for now.

I was in Havana to visit the city’s famous urban farms and community gardens, which sprang up during the “Special Period” of the 1990s — when the collapse of the Soviet Union meant a cutoff of subsidized oil and guaranteed prices for Cuban sugar. This crashed the island’s economy, and prompted a big push for self-sufficient and ecological models.

Near the Plaza of the Revolution, in the Vedado district of Havana.

Today, Cuba is getting subsidized oil from Venezuela — though that might not last, with that South American country now rocked by crisis — and is opening its economy as never before. Relations with the U.S. were restored under Obama, anticipating an end to the embargo — though this will take congressional action, and the Trump presidency has yet to formulate a clear Cuba policy.

“After the Special Period, some models did not survive, like the bicycle,” admitted Gina Rey, an urban-planning specialist at Havana’s San Gerónimo University. The bicycles that had been encouraged by the government have largely disappeared from Havana’s streets. The old 1950s Detroit model cars, kept roadworthy through years of embargo by endless improvisation, are back on the roads — and all with shiny new paint jobs.

But Rey was quick to add: “Others have been maintained, such as the urban gardens that are now part of the national program of urban agriculture, which has continued its growth and development in a sustainable manner. In Havana, the results have been good, and this can continue improving at the community level, with an ever more participatory process in the city’s neighborhoods.”

To see these urban farms, I took a taxi out to Vedado, the greener, more spread-out and in pre-Revolutionary times upscale district to the west of Central Havana. The center of Vedado is the Plaza of the Revolution, Cuba’s heart of administrative power, where Che Guevara’s iconic face looks down from the wall of the Interior Ministry Building.

Just a couple of blocks off this expansive and sterile square, housing projects stand alongside faded mansions of the long-departed bourgeoisie, now inhabited by working-class residents. On one of these streets, I visited with Isbel Díaz Torres, a sometime literature professor and one of Cuba’s handful of leftist dissidents. His network, the Cuban Critical Observatory, was founded after the power transfer from Fidel to Raul Castro in 2006, to bring an explicitly anti-capitalist voice to the agitation for greater freedom.

Fields of crops sprout up between city buildings in Havana.

Díaz considers himself an anarchist, and lives much as you’d expect one to — in a squat, or as near as you get to one in Havana. As we passed through the columned entrance of the old house and crossed an interior courtyard, he told me the history.

“In the ’90s, this was the Cathedral of Heavy Metal,” he recalled with a smile. During the Special Period, the building served as a “casa de cultura” — a government-sanctioned community center — known as the Patio de Maria. But the youth-rock scene there seems to have got a little out of control, and in 2003 the government had it closed — possibly due to the embarrassment of a hive of metalheads just a block off the Plaza of the Revolution.

Farmers telling Global Village about urban farming Havana style.

The building sat vacant for a while. But after the devastating hurricanes of 2008, local folk whose homes had been destroyed or damaged took shelter there — and were allowed to stay, their residency “unofficial” but tolerated. Díaz and his boyfriend are among them, sharing a small apartment behind the courtyard.

Díaz took me for a walk just a few blocks from his squat, and we passed big lots planted with bright-green rows of spinach, lettuce, chives, celery, parsley and cauliflower. Workers with hoes tilled the ground behind fences intertwined with fruit-bearing vines and flowers or reinforced with rows of cactus.

The workers took a little time out to answer my questions. These farms began spontaneously, yet often under the direction of bureaucrats who worked in the nearby government office buildings, to feed their own employees during the Special Period. But soon they were formally recognized and organized as collectives.

Working on an urban farm in Havana.

There are four members of the Organopónico Plaza collective, and their salary depends on yield. It is supplemented by sales of produce to local residents from the little stall set up at the farm’s entrance.

Jorge Albertini, the director of Organopónico Plaza, told me he quit his job as a police officer to oversee the farm when it was formalized.

“I like this better,” he said, smiling.

When I asked about the agricultural methods, he quickly responded, “One hundred percent organic! Chemicals are prohibited.”

Currently, Havana’s budding gentrification holds no threat to the organopónicos. Hopefully, they will survive without being put to such grim tests as a general collapse in Venezuela — or bellicose Trump designs on Cuba.

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