Edgar County farmer takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip to previously closed island country
When the opportunity arose to visit Cuba, Edgar County resident Dale English leapt at the chance.
National farm marketing advisor John Roach organized the trip as a People to People event. President Dwight Eisenhower started People to People to promote peace.
“You have to have a group like that,” said English. “You can’t just buy a ticket and go down there.”
He added the state department sanctioned the trip and as a participant he is now required to keep a daily journal for the next five years.
Roach organized the trip for his farmer clients, like English, but it was not an official agriculture trip seeking to open new markets for grain or American farm equipment.
English said American grain is already getting to Cuba through third party deals, although normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. might benefit south Florida rice and sugar growers.
“The south Florida rice growers say they can supply all of the rice Cuba needs if it would just open its market,” English stated.
The People to People group did visit some Cuban farms but it is a vastly different world from central Illinois. English said it seems the average farm is about 50 acres with half the ground tillable. The remaining acreage is devoted to livestock such as pigs, sheep and goats, and the main crops are sugar cane and tobacco.
“We saw quite a bit of rice and potatoes,” he said.
The group also visited a 15-acre organic farm that used composting and made its own fertilizers. That farm specialized in growing okra, vegetables, plantains and bananas.
Cuban farming is labor intensive. English observed men going into small cornfields with machetes to cut the whole stalks and cart them back to the roadside, where others pulled the ears and threw them into wagons.
“Never in my life did I think I would see a team of oxen plowing, but we went by one,” he said.
English noted the Cuban terrain, crops and traditions make it unlikely a group of Midwest farmers will go to the island with big equipment to show the locals how to farm.
Farming was not on English’s agenda for the trip but history was. His parents visited Cuba in the 1950s before the Communist take over. He remembered their impressions and was intrigued by the opportunity to see some of the same locations.
The trip also coincided with the reopening of the U.S Embassy in Havana and the restoration of diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years. The tour group watched the ceremonies on television and the Cubans around them were impressed that Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his speech in Spanish.
“I’m kind of a history buff and that’s part of why I wanted to go,” said English.
One of the highlights for English was the opportunity to stay at the historic Hotel Internacional in Havana. This was the prime spot for American tourists in the ‘50s, and it was the site for a summit of American mobsters called by Meyer Lansky for the purpose of developing the seven-kilometer long Malecon sea front in Havana with hotels and casinos.
Lansky’s plan fell apart in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power, and organized crime turned its attention to Las Vegas instead.
English explained that in many ways visiting Cuba is like experiencing a time warp because development stopped and the economy ground to a halt when Russian financial backing for the Castro regime halted with the end of communism in the former Soviet bloc. Many of Havana’s buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and English said while the interiors are well maintained, the exteriors are shabby and need painted.
“You see all of these ‘50s cars, and it was like going back in time,” said English.
American made cars from the 1950s are prevalent in Havana because severing relations broke trade with the island. English did see newer cars made by other countries on the streets.
His impression is the island country is poised for a change. An aged Fidel Castro stepped down from power in 2008 and turned the government over to his brother Raul, who claims he will retire in 2018. How the island will change remains to be seen.
“Their (Cuba’s) baby boomers grew up with Castro, and they love the guy,” said English, who detects a desire for change by the baby boomers’ grandchildren as they are less connected to the Castro mystique.
In Miami, he talked with a couple of young Cuban women working as waitresses. He said the women are sending money and supplies to family in Cuba and told him they would prefer to stay in Cuba but the lack of opportunity drove them out.
“They are married to their country and want to stay,” said English.
His final reason for going to Cuba now is to see the country before corporate America gains a foothold when the Castros leave and starts building hotels and fast food establishments.
English said like many Latin American countries he has visited, poverty is the overall impression he takes away from Cuba. The average salary in Cuba is $20 per month and everyone is given a $1 ration book per month. Doctors are the highest paid individuals at between $60 and $90 per month.
“In Cuba, you get all of your health care for free and nobody pays for housing,” said English, adding the Cubans he talked to considered their health care as excellent.
President Obama has been castigated in some quarters for the decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, and English considers the criticism unwarranted.
“I hope we will open up free trade,” said English. “I think free trade around the world is good. We can get Cuban delegations to come to the U.S. and see what is available. Any development that takes place will be for the tourists because the locals won’t be able to use it.”
Gary Henry, The Prairie Press
September 10, 2015