Food Sovereignty: Views from Cuba

Lindsay Naylor, Department of Geography, University of Delaware
Ibrahim Ali, Gardening the Community, Springfield, MA
Paul Massey, Regenerations Garden Community, Kilauea, HI
Mary Mathison, Mary’s Place, Seattle, WA
Alyshia M. Silva, Food First, Oakland, CA
Paul Wasserman, New York, NY
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2016.62.3p

In the early 1990s, Cuba entered the Special Period in the Time of Peace as a response to the economic struggle that resulted from the loss of the U.S.S.R as a trading partner following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and complicated by the U.S. blockade of the country. A main focus of the Cuban Government was to guarantee basic subsistence for the population. In the early years of the Special Period (which lasted until 2004, when the economy returned to pre-1989 levels), imports of food were reduced by half, and most agricultural inputs (e.g. petroleum, chemicals, feed for livestock) plummeted by 60 to 80 percent. Cubans consumed only seventy percent of the calories that they had in the prior years. The U.S.S.R had previously supplied up to seventy percent of goods imported by Cuba and purchased almost seventy percent of Cuban exports. The Cuban economy had to undergo a major shift to account for significant losses in trade. It turned to domestic production of basic goods. Prior to the 1990s, most Cuban agriculture was large-scale, monocultural, and chemical intensive, relying largely on trading partners for industrial inputs. During the Special Period, Cuba underwent a large-scale conversion from conventional agriculture to smaller-scale organic agriculture. Now almost thirty years since the Special Period began, many Cubans continue to farm using organic and agroecological methods. Some argue that this form of agriculture can be considered a component of building food sovereignty—a concept and a movement to democratize the food system and in some cases protect national food self-sufficiency. The practice of food sovereignty differs from place to place and here we ask: What does food sovereignty look like in Cuba? The authors, as a group, arrived in Cuba with this question and embarked on an educational tour of production and consumption in Cuba. Together we offer representations of what we saw when we visited Cuba to better understand the practices of food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture on the island. As travelers from outside Cuba, we asked: how are people farming? What are people eating? And what does it look like? From historical artifacts and monuments to urban and rural food production, food sovereignty practices and representations are displayed. Examine the photos below taken by different group members (including some who wished to remain anonymous), each captioned to explain their view of food sovereignty in Cuba.

Figure 1. Museum of the Revolution, Havana, Cuba: Photo by Alyshia Silva

Taken inside the Museum of the Revolution, this photo showcases the grandeur and splendor of the Cuban elite before the revolution. Once the presidential palace, it last housed U.S.-backed authoritarian leader Fulgencio Batista. World-famous Tiffany’s of New York decorated the interior, and the Salon de los Espejos was built to resemble the Palace of Versailles. No matter your opinion of the Revolution and Cuba today, this palace stands as a reminder of the battles for sovereignty and the pressures of neoliberal capitalism. (A. Silva)

Figure 2. Community Food Project, Havana, Cuba: Photo by Sharon Karlesky

This picture shows samples of preserved foods from a community-based food project run by a husband and wife team. They show how local foods can be dried and canned with minimal resources and also write cookbooks for using the preserved foods. Food sovereignty to me is the right to grow food with local resources and materials. (S. Karlesky).

Figure 3. Urban Farm, Alamar, Cuba: Photo by Ibrahim Ali

This photo of the farm in Alamar represents food sovereignty to me because for many people who see food sovereignty as something to strive for, this is an existing model that includes the following: a closed loop that makes productive use of space in a sustainable way; organically sourced and grown fertilizers and pest management techniques making it a pesticide free farm; located close to the capital city, and in a neighborhood (and country no less) that has had extreme economic hardships and challenges; waste being utilized efficiently and for the improvement of plants, vegetation and animals; employed local residents and others in a cooperative manner in what appeared to be a fair way to divide work and profits (I. Ali)

Figure 4. Organic Farm, Alamar, Cuba: Photo by Lindsay Naylor

For some groups in Cuba, practicing food sovereignty is predicated on national self-sufficiency and limited resources. Much agricultural production is done on a small-scale and without petroleum-based machinery. Here, at an urban farm, a farmer plows a field with oxen labor. I identify this photo as food sovereignty in practice because it is low-impact vegetable production in the city. (L. Naylor)

Figure 5. Cooperative Farm, Pinar del Río, Cuba: Photo by Paul Wasserman

Established in 1973, this large cooperative farm in fertile, rural Pinar del Río grows a combination of food crops and tobacco. Its fifty-five member families consume thirty percent of food grown. The rest is sold to the government, given to hospitals, schools, or sold to others. Key decisions are made by an Assembly of all members, which also elects an Executive Committee to oversee the farm’s operation. Food crops are grown organically. Land is cooperatively owned and includes housing for all member families. Democratic governance of this decades-old cooperative embodies key principles of food sovereignty. (P. Wasserman)

Figure 6. Urban Farm, Sancti Spíritus, Cuba: Photo by Paul Wasserman

This urban farm in the city of Sancti Spíritus uses a combination of organic and permaculture practices. It is one of forty-six farms in the city. The land was given to the farmers in “usufruct” by the Cuban government, meaning they have use of the land as long as they grow food on it. Government support of urban farms and the usufruct structure illustrate Cuba’s determination to move toward food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. Sancti Spíritus is home to institutions and foundations with deep knowledge of agro-ecological practices that inform the work on many of the city’s farms. (P. Wasserman)

Figure 7. Roadway in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba: Photo by Mary Mathison

The beautiful vintage cars that are so ubiquitous in Cuba remind us of more optimistic times, but they are also a visual reminder of the structural violence that continues to isolate Cuba. The U.S. blockade against Cuba makes trade extremely difficult from countries that trade with both the U.S. and Cuba, so they are forced to make do with what they already have. The Cuban food sovereignty revolution was born from dire need and isolation from global resources. After the Soviet bloc dissolved in the late 1980s, it was grow food or die. (M. Mathison)

Figure 8. Agroforestry Plot, Sancti Spíritus, Cuba: Photo by Paul Massey

Though less commonly represented than annual vegetable beds in community and family farms in Cuba, mixed agroforestry systems represent an important component of food production systems, which once established, can produce a diversity of nutrient dense food and other products for years to come with fewer material and labor inputs than their annual crop counterparts. Additionally, they can generate valuable vegetative and seed planting material for use in creating new systems throughout the community. This small plot combines banana, coconut, mango, peach palm, tamarind, turmeric and coffee. (P. Massey)

Figure 9. Farm Stand in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba: Photo by Anonymous

Organopónico El Rachón is an urban farm in Santi Spíritus. In this picture we see one of the workers contently selling organic produce cultivated from the farm located directly behind the farm stand. The farm stand is located on the sidewalk on a town street; it is small in size yet big in intention and impact. The stand provides greens, herbs, turnips, and more depending on the season. This is what food sovereignty looks like! Although it is not a complete food sovereignty loop, it is pretty close. The community is able to benefit from the farm's ecologically grown harvests at a fair price. The farmers tend the urban land and provide themselves and the community access to a healthy food alternative. (Anonymous group member)

Figure 10. “Hasta La Victoria Siempre,” Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba: Photo by Anonymous

Food sovereignty’s realization is only possible as part of a larger political project to imagine and struggle for an alternative to capitalism. Cuba’s ongoing project to realize socialism has been fraught with complications, failures, and successes. We don’t need to romanticize the revolution to appreciate its foundation for Cuba’s refusal to sink into the surrounding sea of global, neoliberal capitalism. Unlike many other poor states, it maintains significant control in determining and shaping the direction and policies of its food system and other integral sectors like health, education, housing, and more – essentials for justice and food sovereignty. (Anonymous group member)

Figure 11. Rural farm, Jovellanos, Matanzas, Cuba: Photo by Mary Mathison

“We must go back to the land,” Raúl Castro said when he announced a new policy allowing Cubans to privately farm land owned by the government that had been sitting underutilized. This family farm is located on a piece of land that was part of this program. It grows organic produce for area schools and residents. The farmer told us that in Cuba, healthy organic produce is for all the people, not just the elite. Food sovereignty means more than national independence. It is about local access to healthy, organic food grown for the people, by the people. (M. Mathison)

Figure 12. Edible Greens, Viñales, Cuba: Photo by Paul Massey

This small attractive edible green with pink flowers is readily seen in gardens throughout Cuba. No one I spoke with knew its name, but all regarded it as an indispensable foodstuff, eaten as a salad and cooked green in various dishes or on its own. The plant, Talinum fruticosum, is appreciated for thriving in marginal soils, self-seeding, and growing in dense patches that suppress weed competition. Food plants that grow like weeds themselves, with little or no effort, can provide a measure of food sovereignty to even the non-gardener or farmer. (P. Massey)

Figure 13. Rural Farm, Viñales Cuba: Photo by Alyshia Silva

This was taken in the valley of the mogotes, and was my first time learning that the sweet potato, or what is known as batata in Cuba, also has edible and nutritious leafy greens. A main staple of the Cuban diet along with other critical root crops that are indigenous to the island, it is a vital source of vitamins, proteins, and carbs. (A. Silva)


There are multiple understandings of food sovereignty. In the case of Cuba, the political-economic context in which the government and the people seek equitable access to healthy foods is in the shadow of the blockade. The food and agriculture movement(s) in Cuba is diverse and there are many goals among different groups. Some groups are interested in building on the momentum behind organic and low-input agriculture, using agroecological and permaculture methods. Yet Cuban agriculture cannot be reduced to this one form—not all agricultural production in Cuba is small-scale and organic. As an example, missing from these photos are the vast fields of sugar cane and homogenous plots of tobacco. Three decades on from the start of the Special Period a variety of economic and social processes are present in agricultural production, with some groups working on state-owned farms, others as part of cooperatives that sell to the state, and still others that sell directly to the public. There is a mix of communal and independent, state and for-profit groups selling agricultural products. As a group we saw many inspiring examples of growing and sharing food that demonstrate hope and love in and through times of struggle. These examples do not tell the whole story, and what we saw in the fields was not always what we saw on our plates, but they do demonstrate the importance of efforts to create more egalitarian systems for access to food and agricultural resources. And what representations of food sovereignty we might take home with us.

For further reading on Cuban agriculture and food sovereignty:

  • Funes, F. Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba. Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2002.
  • Martínez-Torres, M. E. and P. M. Rosset. “La Vía Campesina: The Birth and Evolution of a Transnational Social Movement.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 37, no. 1 (January 2010): 149–75.
  • Rosset, P. and M. Benjamin, eds. The Greening of the Revolution: Cuba’s Experiment with Organic Agriculture. Melbourne, Vic., Australia: Ocean Press, 2002.
  • Trauger, A. We Want Land to Live: Making Political Space for Food Sovereignty. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.
  • Williams, J. M. “Otros Caminos: Making an Alternative Agriculture Movement in Everyday Cuba.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017.
  • Wittman, H., A. Aurélie Desmarais, and N. Wiebe. Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature & Community. Halifax: Fernwood, 2010.
  • Wright, J. Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity: Lessons from Cuba. 1 edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2012.