• social production of space;
  • state power;
  • urban agriculture;
  • Cuba


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted over a decade from 1997 to 2007 in Havana, Cuba, this paper applies Henri Lefebvre's insights on the social production of space to the processes involved in the creation of officially-sanctioned sustainable urban agriculture sites. Without denying the important function of the state in these processes, this paper highlights the significant role played by a range of non-state actors, and interests, largely left out from most scholarly accounts of Cuba's recent agricultural developments. In this manner, the paper offers a more refined understanding of the influence and the limits of the Cuban state at the current historical juncture.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited

The re-mapping of the world that accompanied the breakdown of the Soviet Bloc beginning in the late 1980s triggered an economic crisis in Cuba that greatly restricted the state's ability to continue providing basic goods and services to the population. Countering a previous emphasis on a state-run, centralized economy, beginning in the early 1990s, the government allowed, and even encouraged, private and non-governmental initiatives that would help mitigate some of the key problems brought about by the crisis (Dilla 1996; Dilla et al. 1997). In the agricultural sector, this was a time characterized by experimentation with more decentralized and scaled-down forms of production that would address the sharp and sudden drop in agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, previously imported from the Soviet Bloc (Rosset and Benjamin 1994). Food production and small-scale, organic agriculture became both a necessity and a priority, not just in the countryside but in the city (Funes et al. 2002).

These new agricultural developments spawned a vast literature that over the last decade has offered myriad interpretations of the significance of these changes, both within Cuba and beyond. Some authors (Rosset and Benjamin 1994), concentrating on Cuba's massive conversion to organic agriculture, have celebrated these changes for what they contribute to those interested in the development of sustainable alternatives the world over. Others, more concerned with internal Cuban political dynamics, have interpreted these changes, particularly the partitioning of state managed farms and the privatization of agricultural production, as evidence that Cuba is shifting towards a capitalist economy (Gropas 2006).1 Regardless of differences in interpretations, this literature shares the foregrounding of the Cuban state as the main driving force behind such momentous transformations. Without denying the important function of the Cuban state in all of this,2 this paper considers the significant role played by a range of non-state actors, and interests, largely left out from such macro accounts of Cuba's recent agricultural developments. Specifically, this paper considers the motivations of individual citizens, as well as the work of state-like institutions, such as internationally funded NGOs, which as Ferguson and Gupta (2002) point out, need to be taken into account in any nuanced analysis that acknowledges the import of transnational governmentality (Foucault 1991), or “the conduct of conduct” (Dean 1999) in the contemporary world. It is the contention of this paper that only through such a decentering of the state can one begin to understand the actual power dynamics at play in the recent reconfiguration of the Cuban landscape and, by extension, appreciate the workings of governmentality in a country where, despite all pronouncements to the contrary, the socialist government has not only survived but has largely retained its ability to engage citizens in government programs ultimately presented to a national and an international audience as state-generated achievements of la revolución (the revolution), even when they turn out to be largely animated by actors who do not identify directly with the state and do not act on its behalf.

The analysis focuses on a recent government-endorsed initiative aimed at promoting the “greening” of urban agriculture in those places perceived to have become most distant from the formal state control apparatus. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted over a decade from 1997 to 2007—on a total of 29 small-scale urban agriculture sites located on private and public properties in various Havana municipalities,3 this investigation specifically follows the transformation of two private home patios and rooftops as they move from being independent primary food production sites to being “model” gardens receiving official-recognition and endorsement for their implementation of sustainable agriculture. Their achieved status of model gardens made them appropriate subjects for an exploration of how the ideal site, promoted by the government campaign, gets constituted and reproduced.

Since the government-endorsed initiative to promote the greening of urban agriculture in Havana aims at the transformation of particular sites, Henri Lefebvre's insights on the social production of space (1998 [1974]) becomes particularly relevant. From this perspective, space is not seen as a passive stage for social action but as the means, the medium, and the ends of social action. The social production of space, as Lefebvre points out, is a complex phenomenon whose understanding requires one to simultaneously pay attention to what he calls “the physical”, “the conceived” and the “lived” dimensions of space. The first concept refers to the perceived, material aspects of space that allow for production and reproduction; the second is associated with the totalizing and idealized visions that decision makers and people in position of authority, consciously or otherwise, attempt to inscribe in space; while the third, lived space, is linked to the inhabitants and users of space who can use their imagination to appropriate and change “dominant space” (Lefebvre 1998 [1974]).

Lefebvre's ideas are useful in the Cuban context because, contrary to other theorists of space, Lefebvre does not consider each of these dimensions as self-contained, nor does he presume fixed relationships among them. Unlike Michel de Certeau (1988), for example, Lefebvre does not assume a priori an antagonistic relationship between those with official authority to regulate and define space (a group he links with conceived space) and those who inhabit it (a group he associates with lived space). While for de Certeau (1988) the users of space, which he baptizes as “the weak,” represent “individuals already caught in the ‘nets’ of discipline” whose only resort, unable as they are to change the system, is to “use, manipulate, and divert” the spaces produced by “the strong”, for Lefebvre, the balance of power is not so predetermined. Lefebvre not only leaves open the possibility for the desires of the so-called weak and the strong to converge but, importantly, he allows for the actions of the weak to influence and even change the system or dominant space. This framework then allows for the possibility of a non-antagonistic relationship between the state, or political society, and the various incarnations of civil society, a situation which according to some analysts (Acanda 1996; Acanda 1997; Dilla and Oxhorn 2002) might be more appropriate to the Cuban context. It also permits a situation where, as shall be seen, some urban farmers, through their own creative practices, have significantly influenced the way urban agriculture is officially conceived and practiced in the city. In other words, Lefebvre's conceptual framework allows for the possibility of change not just driven from above but also from below, a perspective that moves us beyond de Certeau's image of the users of space as inevitably caught in the grid of discipline, unable to leave it behind and destined only to resistance through minuscule, quotidian acts (de Certeau 1988). Such an image, applied to Cuba, would reproduce the simplistic view of totalitarian socialist states, so eloquently critiqued by anthropologists such as Katherine Verdery (1991) over a decade ago.

Finally, Lefebvre's emphasis, not just on the conceived and the lived dimensions of space but on its material or physical dimension as a dynamic and integral component of the process, both influenced and influencing the other two dimensions is particularly well-suited to an analysis of urban agriculture in Havana, a phenomenon driven by economic hardship and material shortages. Heeding Lefebvre's advice, this paper traces the interconnections among: 1) the way would-be model urban agriculture sites are physically constructed and re-constructed on the ground to ensure production and social reproduction; 2) the way they are conceived of by those who hold official power and the authority to name, tabulate, and regulate space (this includes pertinent governmental institutions as well as internationally funded non-governmental organizations whose goals coincide with those of the government in the field of urban agriculture); and 3) the way these sites are experienced and used by producers themselves, a spatial dimension that can be associated with “the clandestine or underground side of social life” (Lefebvre 1998 [1974]), usually left out by analysts who focus primarily on the public sphere.

Lefebvre's approach, as argued, fits the dynamics of space production observed in Cuba and reveals the complex set of variables and actors involved in the making of sustainable agriculture in Havana. Importantly, it allows for a more refined understanding of the influence and the limits of the Cuban state in a particular realm of everyday life associated with an economically and spatially marginal sector of the population. Among them, are those elderly, unemployed or underemployed individuals whose meager peso earnings and minimal additional sources of income restrict their access to food sold at agricultural markets or at the recently opened hard currency stores.4 They include a sector of the population whose spatial mobility has shrunk over the last decade due to a greatly deteriorated public transportation system.5

It is the experiences of these individuals and their interactions with state and non-state institutions as they create and recreate their production sites which constitute the raw data for this paper whose primary concern is not so much with current debates about Cuba's move towards capitalism, incipient or otherwise (e.g. Brotherton 2008; Gropas 2006; Hearn 2005), but with the dynamic landscapes of power that characterize this Caribbean nation at the current historical juncture.

In order to place these landscapes in their proper historical perspective and before delving into the case studies, the paper opens with an overview of how urban agriculture, the sites that constitute the focus of this analysis, and the government initiative to green these sites, fit into the broader political and economic developments that took place in Cuba before and after the crisis of the late 1980s.

Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited

While the economic crisis triggered by the breakdown of the Soviet Bloc affected all areas of the Cuban economy, its impact was particularly dramatic in the food and agricultural sectors as the loss of favorable trade agreements with Soviet Bloc countries translated into a drastic drop in the availability of traditionally imported foodstuffs and agricultural inputs (Rosset and Benjamin 1994). Food insecurity rose to unprecedented levels in a country where for decades the government—as primary food producer and distributor—had been able to guarantee its citizens access to a basic food basket at the household level through the institution of the food ration (Benjamin et al. 1986).

The challenge for the government was to more than double usual levels of national food production

The challenge for the government was to more than double usual levels of national food production with almost half the inputs that had been regularly used until that time (Rosset and Benjamin 1994). This challenge required, among other things, the introduction of economic incentives linked to agricultural production and a simultaneous move away from the centralized agricultural production and food distribution that had characterized previous years of revolutionary policy. In agriculture, the almost 30 year trend, encapsulated in the slogan “more state property more socialism”(Burchardt 2000), which resulted in 80 percent of agricultural land being in the hands of the state by the end of the 1980s,6 was sharply reversed as the large state-run granjas del pueblo (people's farms) began to be partitioned and turned into smaller production units worked by cooperatives whose profits were directly linked to outputs.7 In the food distribution sector, where over the years the state had become the sole official seller of goods,8 similar changes were made as mercados agropecuarios (agricultural markets) were opened allowing cooperatives and individual farmers to sell their produce directly to the public.

Largely out of necessity, the government officially endorsed a two-pronged approach which emphasized primary food production in urban centers and, more generally, encouraged a massive conversion of agricultural production towards a scaled-down, green approach associated with self-reliant, sustainable and organic practices on small production units (Funes et al. 2002).

In keeping with these developments, in 1991, the government of the City of Havana, rapidly allocated human and material resources (including state land) to encourage individual citizens to engage in food production on every “inch of available land” (Cruz Hernández and Sánchez Medina 2001; Murphy 1999). Parks, open baseball fields, and, more commonly, demolition sites, were turned into the vegetable garden sites later known as parcelas (see Figure 1). These new agricultural developments in Havana did not just include state land given in usufruct to citizens but also spaces within private homes, where the food security crisis led home-owners to transform their rose gardens and bare rooftops into spaces for chicken coops, pig sties, goat sheds, and vegetable gardens. These private sites later came to be known within the urban agriculture field simply as patios (see Figure 2).


Figure 1. Parcela in Centro Habana, 2001. Photo by author.

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Figure 2. Private patio with plantain bushes and beehive, Habana del Este, 2005. Photo by author.

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While some international observers suggestively equated these changes with “the greening of the revolution” (Rosset and Benjamin 1994), it was food insecurity and the national struggle for survival, rather than the environment, that was emphasized in government discourses of the time pertaining to the new food production efforts. In 1994, one of the worst years of the economic crisis, Raul Castro opened the National Assembly with a speech where he proclaimed “Yesterday, we said that beans were as important as guns; today we are affirming that beans are more valuable than guns” (Castro Ruz 1994). In keeping with such discursive practices equating food production with a weapon in a war against nation-wide food insecurity, early media reports focusing on parcelas and patios in Havana described these sites as “war trenches” the gardeners as “troops”, and the activity of urban food production as “the people's war.” For example, in an article that described a garden started in a retirement home in Havana, its founder, Pastorita Núñez, a prominent female revolutionary figure, was not only said to have been inspired into action by a speech given by the Minister of the Armed Forces, Raúl Castro, but she was described as leading not a group of gardeners but “a troop” of twenty-six elderly people (Rodriguez Calderón 1995).9

While in the media and the discourses of government officials, this push for primary food production in the city was represented—as with previous mobilizations—as a unified national struggle associated with the revolution, the level at which this struggle was effected was for the most part acknowledged to be local and grounded in the neighborhood and the household. References to la patria (the nation), and to el pueblo (the people), common in earlier mobilizations, were often modified to reflect this shift in the locus of action. Thus, the door sign shown in Figure 3, which was associated with the urban agriculture movement, changed the popular slogan “del pueblo, por el pueblo y para el pueblo” (from the people, by the people and for the people) to indicate that this was “agriculture from the neighborhood, by the neighborhood, for the neighborhood (del barrio por el barrio para el barrio). The scaled-down nature of this new mobilization was further noted in the same door sign which identified the individual household (esta casa)10 as the primary unit of the movement. Not surprisingly, at a time when the state had minimal material resources at its disposal, the emphasis was on self-reliance, and individual household solutions to food insecurity.11 The official message was that citizens could no longer expect the state to provide; now citizens had to help themselves by “relying on their own efforts and their own means.”12 Indeed, those involved in the rise of Havana's urban agriculture movement still remember a time, now conveniently ignored by official accounts, when food production was spontaneously and independently undertaken by average citizens trying to provide for themselves and their families.


Figure 3. Sign placed on household doors or garden gates noting participation in the movement of patios and parcelas, 2001. Photo by author.

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As the state withdrew from the arena of food provisioning, Cuban non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were recognized as important actors that could play a role in providing much needed assistance to the population.13 In this context, until at least the mid 1990s, these NGOs, usually funded via international aid agencies based in capitalist countries,14 were allowed to proliferate, albeit under the supervision of state institutions.15 One such NGO working in the field of urban agriculture was the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (Foundation Antonio Núñez Jiménez of Nature and Humanity) an organization that for over a decade has assisted individual urban farmers with their production endeavors while imparting knowledge on sustainable agriculture practices.16 While NGOs like the Foundation reached a considerable number of individual producers over time, they could not encompass all of them. Importantly, although the efforts of these NGOs fell within the purview of the state, their actions were not always coordinated with those of the Ministry of Agriculture, the institution ultimately responsible for agriculture in the city.

Beginning in the late 1990s, public officials began to express concern about the small-scale urban agriculture spaces that had grown uncontrolled since the beginning of the crisis. In Havana alone, in 1999, the 8,000 patios and parcelas officially registered by the Ministry of Agriculture not only represented the greatest numbers of urban primary food producers (nearly 17,000), they encompassed the greatest area under agricultural production in the city (about 1000 hectares) (Cruz Hernández and Sánchez Medina 2001). While a fraction of these sites had direct linkages, and received some kind of assistance, from NGOs promoting urban agriculture, their links with the Ministry of Agriculture and its related institutions was minimal.17

Aware of the ineffectiveness of the system in controlling and guiding producer's practices, in late 1999 the Ministry of Agriculture increased its reach on the ground by introducing agricultural “representatives” appointed to work within smaller territories. Immersed at the neighborhood level, these representatives were based in the Municipal office of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, CDRs)—the mass organization that enlists citizens on every city block for various state-endorsed mobilizations. One of the first tasks assigned to these newly-created representatives was to carry out a census of parcelas and patios in their territories, an act closely linked with the official launching of the government-directed Movimiento de Patios y Parcelas(movement of patios and parcelas), on February 24, 2000. The Movement aimed to “green” Havana's neighborhoods by promoting the creation of more of these types of sites, as well as by bringing into view (and hence under control) those already existing but unaccounted for. The idea was to organize small-scale urban agricultural producers so as to serve them better while bringing them in line with Ministry of Agriculture standards for agricultural production in the city. The latter goal—to foment sustainable practices on these sites—was to be accomplished, in part, through another defining activity of the movement: a competition for the official title of model garden (patio or parcela de referencia).18

Within a year of its inception, the Movement had incorporated nearly 70,000 patios and parcelas throughout Havana—an impressive increase over the nearly 8,000 initially registered with the Ministry of Agriculture. Out of these 70,000 sites, 159 were granted the title of model sites at the level of each city district. From this group came the “models” for each municipality, and subsequently, for the city as a whole. The popularity of the Movement, which encompassed all territorial scales from the district to the nation, only grew in the following years as more and more producers aimed to gain or maintain the title of model for their production sites.19 From a certain perspective, this competition, with its emphasis on encompassing scales and its requirement of official approval by functionaries at various levels of the governmental hierarchy, seemed to succeed in reproducing the notion of the state as the ultimate authority, standing above, and encompassing of, society—a perspective which, as anthropologists Ferguson and Gupta (2002) argue, is constructed and reinforced by many of the mundane rituals and procedures instituted by modern states the world over. Yet this competition, unlike some of the state rituals and procedures discussed by Ferguson and Gupta, was not an obligation for those being evaluated but rather a voluntary activity. Considering that participation in the Movement was voluntary and involved numerous producers whose activities previously fell outside the sphere of influence of the state control apparatus, the following questions arise: How and why did producers join in this official campaign? And who, or what, in the end, guided their actions? Ultimately, what does this experience tell us about the power of the Cuban state at this current historical juncture?

Next, the paper pursues these questions by applying Lefebvre's conceptual framework to two private urban agriculture sites that have received the official title of model gardens on a number of occasions. These sites were chosen for special attention for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, their status as successful model gardens enjoying widespread public notoriety made them appropriate subjects for an exploration of how the ideal site gets constituted and reproduced. Second, while the processes observed at these sites were shared by other model gardens included in the study, the author had sufficiently detailed ethnographic data on these two sites to aptly illustrate the dynamics involved in the transformation of average food gardens into model urban agriculture sites. Lastly, their location on private property—where public officials have no formal authority to enforce certain practices—and their involvement with NGOs made these sites particularly suitable for an analysis that aimed to assess the Cuban state's ability to incorporate citizens into official programs and campaigns.

Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited

Shortly after the launching of the Movement in early 2001, Rafael,20 a man in his early 40s living in the municipality of El Cerro, had told the author that he felt his gardening work was particularly suited to the CDR-Ministry of Agriculture objective of promoting “the greening of every city block.” As early as 1997, inspired by a course he had taken from the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, Rafael had begun fashioning a sustainable garden out of the cement patio of his home.21 Using groups of soil-filled old truck tires of different sizes, he had created terrace-like areas where he cultivated a variety of crops including taro, yam, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, parsley, and various herbs. This site certainly demonstrated how a barren cement patio could be turned into an idyllic edible garden, yet, despite Rafael's optimism regarding his garden's suitability for the competition, he felt that his work fell short of the ideal being promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture.

This site certainly demonstrated how a barren cement patio could be turned into an idyllic garden

Rafael knew of the criteria used for the selection of model gardens from his informal discussions with local Ministry representatives, as well as from a brochure that had been widely disseminated to advertise the competition. This brochure outlined what Lefebvre would call the “conceived” dimension of space, that is, the officially authorized vision for these kinds of sites. As well as asserting the Ministry's role as the ultimate judge of primary food production in the city, the brochure stated that an ideal model patio or parcela was one that functioned as a positive example to other families in the surrounding neighborhood for the quality of the “subprograms,” or production components, it contained.22 Each of various categories of crop—medicinal plants, fruit trees, or root crops, for example—constituted a different subprogram. The list of subprograms also included activities like beekeeping, aquaculture, the raising of various food animals, soil conservation, and the production of organic matter and animal feed.23 The positive contribution such a site could make from an environmental perspective was further underscored by the addition of a subprogram labeled medioambiente (environment) (Companioni et al. 2002), created to acknowledge any activities conducted on site with the objective of raising environmental awareness in the broader community.

Together, these subprograms embodied the ideal garden as defined by the Ministry of Agriculture—a site characterized by biodiversity, represented in a good mixture of crops and animals; the use of non-chemical solutions for problems such as soil infertility; the optimal recycling of household and production-related “waste” via practices such as composting; and the conscious promotion of environmentally-sound practices. In its broad outlines, this ideal also coincided with that promoted by NGOs like the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, with which Rafael had already established contact.24 The weight this ideal was to have on Rafael's practices (and on the physical re-configuration of his garden) became evident as he prepared for a series of visits related to the official Movement.

In March 2001, Rafael found out that none other than Contino, the National President of the CDRs, was expected to view his garden as part of a national CDR- Ministry of Agriculture Delegation engaged in the process of selecting model patios and parcelas. Weeks earlier, anticipating this visit, he had calmly started planting fruit trees and coffee plants but, on the day of the visit, he was overcome with anxiety regarding the tasks ahead of him. He complained that there still remained too much to be done and persuaded his sister and three friends, including the author, to help out with the preparations. Within a few hours, the garden was cleaned up25 and a pond was created where Rafael could place fish acquired from a neighbor.

Although Rafael's garden was not selected as a model patio for his municipality after this first official visit, it was considered sufficiently outstanding to be included in a tour of El Cerro given to a delegation of model gardeners from Matanzas Province who came to Havana in September 2001 to attend the First Annual National Gathering of the Patio and Parcela Movement. About six months had elapsed since Rafael's garden had been evaluated for the competition and very little had been changed in the site until a few days prior to the visit. Then, the garden once again underwent considerable transformations. Rafael now prominently exhibited a couple of caged guinea pigs that were actually only temporarily in his care (his own, less healthy-looking guinea pigs were hidden away in an inner courtyard). Among his garden crops he had interspersed a series of didactic signs carrying messages that echoed those of the Patio and Parcela Movement, and emphasized the environmental dimension of the garden (see Figure 4). One of them read: “Organic agriculture: a sustainable way of life.” Another: “A healthy environment guarantees your health”. The effected changes did not just involve production-related elements but included a political dimension previously non-existent in Rafael's garden. In a bright and clean sitting area, newly-created following the destruction of a dilapidated and long-unused chicken coop, Rafael had even hung a picture Che Guevara.


Figure 4. Didactic signs appearing in Rafael's garden, September 2001. Photo by author.

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In Rafael's case, the timing of these changes to coincide with official visits from government officials, as well as the types of transformations effected, made it evident that he was trying to live up to what he understood to be the ideal upheld by the Ministry of Agriculture. Like many other producers, Rafael believed that the criterion of “biodiversity” was measured by the Ministry through a mere count of the subprograms present in a given garden.26 Consequently, his inclusion of fish, as well as his recent addition of coffee plants, fruit trees, and guinea pigs increased by three the already considerable number of subprograms represented in his patio. His self-conscious attempt to re-create the ideal garden as conceived by the Ministry was only underscored by his strategic use of signs and revolutionary imagery. This behavior, also observed among other model producers included in the study, underscored how the “physical” dimension of space, reflected in the redesigned garden site, approximated what Lefebvre would label “conceived space,” exemplified in the Ministry's plans for the rational reproduction of sustainable units of production organized and guided by state authorized institutions.

Although unsuccessful in achieving the title in 2001, Rafael continued working toward it, re-designing his patio in ways that brought it closer and closer to the ideal site promoted by the Ministry. Finally, in 2004, he was awarded the title at the level of the Province.27 By then, thanks to his own efforts and some material assistance from the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, his production endeavors had been expanded from his home patio proper to his rooftop, where he was raising rabbits, a guinea pig, and was cultivating a variety of crops including peppers, guava, tomatoes, beans and grapes (see Figure 5). Using the language of the Ministry, he then proudly told the author that his site “illustrated by example the biodiversity that can be sustainably encouraged in urban homes.”


Figure 5. Street view of Rafael's garden including grape vine on rooftop, 2004. Photo by author.

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The same year Rafael obtained the title at the level of the province, an acquaintance and neighbor of his, Manolo, a man in his late 50s, obtained the title at the level of the municipality. Like Rafael, Manolo had been registered by the local Ministry of Agriculture representative as a participant in the Movement of patios and parcelas in 2001.

Then, he was raising rabbits in a cramped courtyard between the kitchen and the living room of his home. He was only known among a small circle of other rabbit-raisers in the city for his experience with these animals and for his high-quality homemade feed. While he was a member of the Cuban Association for Animal Production, he was proud of his independence vis-à-vis official institutions. On being asked about whether he would consider having a garden in his home, he had told the author that “his thing” was raising rabbits and that he had no interest in cultivation.

By 2004, his production site (and his practice) had radically changed. After having taken a permaculture course with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, Manolo had started collaborating with this institution and his production endeavors had been moved from the courtyard to the more expansive rooftop of his house. There, he had expanded his rabbit production to include guinea pigs and chickens, and was cultivating a range of vegetables, including corn (see Figure 6).


Figure 6. Street view of Manolo's rooftop garden with corn, 2004. Photo by author.

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Manolo not only continued with his previous practice of dehydrating the food leftovers from his and another seven neighboring households to make rabbit feed, he now further mixed this feed with protein-rich rabbit droppings to serve to his chickens. The grass and other greens his rabbits discarded, on the other hand, fell from their elevated cages to the ground where it was eaten by the guinea pigs, left to roam freely for this purpose (see Figure 7). He was also using a portion of the animal excrement he collected to experiment with vermiculture and regularly fertilized his crops with chicken manure. He also fed worms from his vermiculture experiment to the chickens. The philosophy of “waste not”, his term for the permaculture ideal of a closed, integrated agriculture system (Mollison 1988), had revealed to him tremendous opportunities for resource maximization. His unique implementation of sustainable production earned him the public recognition that eventually culminated in his being granted the official title of model garden by the Ministry. While, unlike Rafael, Manolo had not self-consciously aimed to obtain this title, in following the guidelines of the Foundation, his practices had also converged towards the ideals endorsed by the Ministry.


Figure 7. Manolo's rooftop animal production site showing guinea pigs and rabbit cages, 2004. Photo by author.

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Recognizing how the spatial visions of the Ministry, as well as those of the Foundation, informed and guided the physical reconfiguration of both production sites helps one understand one aspect of the production of model patios. Yet, the preceding exposition offers little when it comes to understanding producers' motives in effecting such transformations in the first place. In order to explore these motives, one must turn to the “lived” dimension of the sites in question—a dimension Lefebvre associated with the experiences of the inhabitants of space who are capable of appropriating and even subverting dominant idealized visions of space to serve ends different from those stipulated by the official discourses associated with “conceived” space.

The majority of the producers interviewed in the study—whether their sites were located on public or private land or whether they were considered model gardeners or not coincided in linking their patios and parcelas with la necesidad (need, scarcity or necessity). In their narratives, la necesidad referred to lack of money to purchase food at the relatively expensive agricultural markets; to a diminished supply of certain goods (e.g. eggs, meat) through the inexpensive state ration; and more generally to reduced purchasing power in a context of scarcity. When discussing the advantages of this practice, most producers emphasized their achieved independence from the instability of state food supplies. Indeed, when asked to define “sustainability,” a central concept in the teachings imparted by the Foundation and the Ministry, the majority of producers did not speak of the environment but rather of self-sufficiency, understood as the ability to sustain themselves without external assistance.28 In this context, it was common for producers to complain about lacking the financial resources or the connections to purchase materials and tools, such as animal cages or wheelbarrows, which they considered necessary to improve their production endeavors. While Rafael and Manolo were never explicit about this, there is no doubt that having one's production site officially recognized as a model garden by officially recognized institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture or the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, facilitated things in this respect.

For both producers, the implementation of the sustainable practices that eventually earned them the official title of model patios went hand-in-hand with material improvements made to their sites—improvements they could not have made on their own since the very fact that they were engaging in this kind of small-scale urban agriculture indicated that they had minimal financial resources at their disposal.

As mentioned, both producers had, at least initially, been inspired to change their sites through their contact with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre. As well as imparting knowledge on sustainable technologies, this institution had a policy of rewarding producers who were willing not just to experiment with such technologies but to have their gardens serve as demonstrative sites for the Foundation's workshops and classes. This practice, which in some ways paralleled the Ministry of Agriculture's push for the creation of model gardens, in fact preceded the official competition and followed a prior pedagogical plan endorsed by one of the Foundation's international funding agencies, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). Under this pedagogical plan, the Foundation was to identify individuals with the potential to successfully model permaculture—the brand of sustainable agriculture promoted by the ACF. Once these persons were identified, the Foundation provided them with technical support and importantly, facilitated them access to various inputs, including wheelbarrows, hoses, chicken wire, plastic reservoirs for storing water, and materials to build appropriate infrastructure. These items, when purchased legally by independent individuals, would have to be purchased at the going international market price, far beyond the economic reach of the average citizen. Through the mediation of the Foundation, however, they could be procured at highly subsidized prices. This material assistance was understood by producers to be directly linked to their continued implementation of sustainable practices on their site. One afternoon, while discussing with the author his dislike for the chickens currently included in his “closed production system,” Manolo expanded on the unpleasantness of cleaning up after them explaining that they were no longer worthwhile now that eggs were becoming so affordable. He added: “If I could I would gladly get rid of the chickens tomorrow but I cannot. They are part of ‘a moral commitment’ I have with the Foundation. I keep them for demonstrative purposes to show how the closed system works.” The depth of Manolo's moral commitment with the Foundation could only be understood by looking back in time and realizing the progress he had been able to make through the assistance of this institution.

In the year 2000, long before Manolo became a “model gardener,” he supported his wife and his ailing mother through the informal but regular sale of rabbits. Having left the workforce voluntarily many years back he had no other regular income. He was a good rabbit-raiser but he had a major problem. “Lack of space is my greatest impediment,” he had told the author, as he explained:

I would like to move up [from the small courtyard] to the rooftop but I do not have the money to invest in buying tiles. Besides, it's not just a matter of buying them because there are no tiles to be bought. They are available for the State but not for me. Just plain tiles to build a roof is all that I need.

The tiles, as well as a hose, containers to store water, and fencing material for cages had all materialized by the year 2003, courtesy of the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, which had been able to procure these for Manolo at highly-subsidized prices. For the tiles alone, the regular price was 32 U.S. dollars apiece, but Manolo ended up paying a token 10 Cuban pesos (the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents) for each one. Commenting on the actual market value of his acquisition, Manolo exclaimed: “Imagine with 32 dollars I could live for three months, and here I got 20 tiles; imagine the number of years I could have lived with that money!” He laughed as he ended this commentary. Yet his meager resources were no laughing matter, and his need in this regard was common to most other small-scale producers in the city, the majority of whom also depended entirely on external assistance, mainly from non-governmental organizations,29 to make improvements to their production sites.

Aside from gaining access to subsidized goods, there were further incentives for those considered model gardeners by the Foundation: their sites were likely to be included in official tours, which brought not only Cuban nationals but foreign visitors interested in Havana's urban agriculture experience. These foreigners contributed labor and often brought with them “donations” of seeds and tools. By his own account, Rafael, for example, had initially acquired many seeds, shovels, rakes and other garden tools in this manner. The connections made through these tours were also important since they could lead to further opportunities, including, for example, the exchange of knowledge among producers and a much-coveted chance to travel.

It is evident from these examples that NGOs, like the Foundation, play a significant role in the making of model sustainable sites, yet the status and influence of state institutions, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, remains obscure. Further probing of the “lived” or “underground” dimension of these sites proves fruitful in revealing the place of the Ministry, and explaining why it ultimately succeeded in formally incorporating producers, such as Rafael and Manolo, into its official campaign.

When I asked Rafael, the producer who most self-consciously aimed to please the Ministry, why he invested so much time and effort organizing for public visits, and attending the many public events associated with the Movement, he explained his actions with the vague phrase esto me conviene (this works to my advantage). I knew that in Cuba, compliance with officially-endorsed goals had long been rewarded by increased opportunities for personal advancement—including access to material resources, as well as the amassment of “cultural capital” (Bourdieu 1977) that could, in turn, translate into further material advantage. Rafael's calculated reproduction of the official ideal, including the portrait of Che hanging in his garden, seemed very much the product of this political context. Indeed, I learnt subsequently that around the time he had shown such enthusiasm to multiply the subprograms present in his garden, he was in the process of receiving a monetary prize awarded to him by the new Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente (Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment). The fact that this prize could only be cashed through the mediation of a governmentally approved institution illuminated his eagerness to obtain an official endorsement for his site.30

Notwithstanding this rare occasion where funds were to be directly channeled through a governmental institution for the improvement of a site located within a private residence, there were other reasons why it made sense for producers to welcome endorsement from an entity, such as the Ministry of Agriculture. As the sole regulator of urban agriculture in the city, the Ministry and other relevant state agencies retained substantial power. All producers, whether working on a state or a private plot, depend upon the formal state apparatus to legitimize and thus to secure their practices. Manolo, for example, still recalled how a previous experience raising chickens on his rooftop was abruptly aborted by a neighbor who denounced the smells coming from his then-independent enterprise to the Department of Public Health, which ordered the immediate removal of the chickens. In this context, obtaining an official seal of approval from an entity like the Ministry of Agriculture renders producers less vulnerable to such interventions.31

As the sole regulator of urban agriculture in the city, the ministry and other relevant state agencies retained substantial power

In the end, not just producers have to seek approval from the Ministry of Agriculture; NGOs working in this field are also ultimately accountable to the Ministry for their urban agricultural projects; their activities—and the assistance they channeled to resource-deprived practitioners—depend also on state approval (Hearn 2005). This indirect capacity of the state to influence NGO-based resource flows, then, further explains the desire of producers to conform to the official ideal of sustainability and to strive for, or openly welcome, the title of model garden.

Changes in the physical dimension of space understandably translated into further changes in the lived dimension. Overall, producers' experience of the sites changed positively as a result of effected transformations. For example, Rafael valued the production of biodiversity in his patio, through the addition of new elements such as guinea pigs, because it brought greater diversity not just to the garden site but to his table and the household economy. He recounted enthusiastically how his family had recently consumed guinea pigs for the first time. He also told me how people's interest in guinea pigs—recently introduced into Cuba as a meat source–was growing, making it a profitable animal to raise. He had just sold two specimens he had showcased at an Agricultural Fair for about 140 pesos (almost equal to his entire monthly salary as caretaker for a nearby school). Manolo similarly assessed the changes made to his own site. In 2004, he commented on the savings represented by his modest rooftop herb garden (see Figure 8) explaining:


Figure 8. Street view of Manolo's rooftop garden with corn, 2004. Photo by author.

Download figure to PowerPoint

I started to cultivate as a hobby because the rabbits are the real thing for me . . . but I like it and I benefit even though it is small-scale. I do not have to buy any condiments now. I have everything at home. I have it at hand, fresh. . . . I have been doing this for two years now and look: last year I collected 450 heads of garlic. I gave some to a friend and I still have garlic! It's the same quality as the store-bought one, and in Cuba these days when garlic is cheap it is still one peso, even one and a half pesos, per head.

Aside from the savings his garden represented, Manolo underscored the increased productivity and increased sales the new site had afforded him. By May of 2007, the commercialization of his rabbits, raised primarily with home-made feed, was so successful that he bragged about how he had quadrupled his earnings from the previous year.

As these examples illustrate, at least in some regards, the making of model sustainable sites in Havana involve the purposeful appropriation by producers of dominant, idealized spatial visions with the self-interested objective of meeting some of the producers' own material needs. This situation, however, only partly describes the processes involved in the production of sustainable sites.

The information gathered during the research suggests that it would be unfair to understand producers' implementation of sustainable practices as a mere cynical “staging of the ideal;” a strategy for personal advancement. In fact, producers found that progress towards the ideal sustainable garden, as conceived by the Ministry of Agriculture and NGOs like the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, often resulted in improvements on their previous practices and led to what they considered positive changes in their lives, which they were willing to continue reproducing.

Notwithstanding the mentioned positive side effects affecting the household economy, the overall physical changes associated with the creation of model gardens improved producers' quality of life beyond the purely economic dimension. For example, the crops growing in Rafael's garden, as well as the addition of elements like the fishpond, changed the microclimate in what used to be a barren cement patio making it a welcoming space for relaxation and visits with friends. Manolo, who used to spend most of his time in his home living room, after re-designing his production site, found himself spending more and more time on his rooftop, even when he had no work to do there. He humorously commented that he enjoyed the space so much that, were it not for his elderly mother, who could not go up the stairs, he would take a hammock up and set up permanent residence there. While from the totalizing perspective of the Ministry of Agriculture, these sites were spaces of primary food production integrated into the system and contributing to the community through the greening of every city block, they had a different meaning for the producers involved in this study. From their perspective, these sites while crucial to the household economy were not just mere production spaces; they were a refuge from what many considered an increasingly unwelcoming environment outside the home.32 In this sense, they were not so much experienced as integrated into the surrounding community as they were insulated from it.

Contrary to the Ministry's slogan which stated that urban agriculture was “from the neighborhood, by the neighborhood and for the neighborhood” (see Figure 3), gardeners did not really view themselves as citizens contributing directly through their activities to the development of their neighborhood. Still, through their participation in the competition for the title of model parcela and patio, they came to perceive themselves as active members of a growing community of urban farmers across Havana and beyond. In this respect, for gardeners like Rafael and Manolo, the experience of modeling sustainable agricultural practices, did not just involve physically changing their patios and rooftops but resulted also in a shift in self-perception. Being awarded the title (or being nominated for it) underscored these producers' status as outstanding and made their sites more likely to be included in organized urban agriculture tours. Furthermore, as with producers in similar situations, Manolo and Rafael were publicly awarded diplomas of merit33 and featured on television shows and in articles published in the print media. Such public attention, as well as leading in the mentioned ways to material incentives, link up with the more squarely moral incentive of personal pride in one's accomplishment. This was particularly illustrated by the interest with which model producers in general followed public representations of their practices and expressed concern at being properly acknowledged for their contributions to the field. Thus, Rafael, who had been featured in TV programs, workshops on sustainable agriculture, and various publications by the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, one day complained bitterly that his name had been left out of one of the Foundation's minor publications that highlighted a garden he had helped to develop in a hospital close to his home. Manolo, on the other hand, criticized an article featuring his work in a magazine put out by the Cuban Association of Animal Production mainly because his experience was discussed alongside that of another rabbit-raiser whose practices Manolo considered substandard—particularly from the perspective of sustainability, since the producer relied on industrial feed rather than home-made feed. Such self-consciousness and pride underscored producers' acquired sense of entitlement to their own place within Havana's urban agriculture movement.

Rafael and Manolo, and other gardeners like them, not only asserted their place within Havana's urban agriculture movement but became—and still are—active players in the making of the ideal sustainable urban agriculture site. Their agency in contributing to the public representations of this ideal (what Lefebvre called “conceived” space) is reflected in their participation in the field. Manolo and Rafael not only teach in classes and workshops offered to other producers by the Foundation and the Ministry of Agriculture, they increasingly participate as “authors” in the production of the public image of model patios. For example, in 2003 Rafael and an associate of his secured informal funding through an international NGO that led to the production of a documentary on sustainable agriculture in Havana, which, not surprisingly, was centered on the work of Rafael. Moreover, both producers have contributed to articles appearing in internet magazines, such as the Canadian-based “City Farmer” and the “Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture” based in the Netherlands. In the summer of 2008, Manolo had just returned from an international conference where he spoke about his permaculture experience, as part of a Cuban delegation of experts on the subject. As these examples illustrate, in this context, the inhabitants of space, usually equated with the powerless become involved in those activities, like naming and defining space, that are usually associated with those in positions of power and authority. In this manner, one comes full circle again to the conceived dimension of space in a way that underscores the dynamism of the process described in this paper.

Acquiring an international audience would once have been unfathomable to individuals whose accomplishments were grounded in the domestic, private sphere and situated at the margins of Cuban society. This possibility, however, is telling of broader changes in Cuba, where “permissible connections” with the outside world are being re-worked in a way that does not necessarily detract from the authority of the state. What distinguishes the international articulations described here from those described elsewhere in the literature, notably by Hernández-Reguant (2004) in the arena of cultural production, is that the model farmers are not connecting to the world via the market; their knowledge or skills are neither sold nor copyrighted in the same way as the creative products of individual musicians or writers. Moreover, individual financial gain from international connections are, in this case, modest and do not amount to a radical shift in lifestyles. The actions of the urban food producers described here, then, do not constitute a real or a potential challenge to the status quo, yet they suggest a re-configured landscape of power within Cuba—one in which non-state actors have gained considerable ground. Specifically, from the perspective of the urban agriculture producers involved, their new international connections constitute a source of prestige and an alternative source of goods that can no longer be procured via state institutions. The NGOs operating in this field, for their part, even when constituting an expression of a new transnational governmentality at some level, do not challenge the authority of the state. In fact, as Dilla and Oxhorn (2002) suggest, the internationally-funded Cuban NGOs working in the development field are far removed from the kind of civil society organization that disaffected Cubans in Miami would like to promote: far from opposing government initiatives and programs they either boost them or complement them. Given this situation, it is not surprising that links with foreign institutions, which in other situations might be frowned upon by the government,34 in the case of urban agriculture, could hardly be seen to undermine la revolución. In particular, individual protagonism and creativity, also shunned in other contexts, appears to be promoted here and, if anything, adds to Cuba's international prestige. After all, urban agriculture has gained the status of poster child for the Cuban revolution, taking its place alongside the country's internationally-acclaimed accomplishments in the areas of health and education.

Urban agriculture has gained the status of poster child for the Cuban revolution


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited

As Manolo's and Rafael's stories illustrate, the model small-scale gardens of Havana have been constituted through a composite of social processes that, as Lefebvre suggests, connect the physical transformations on the ground—the introduction of guinea pigs, compost piles and interconnected elements of a production system—with the conceived ideal of official institutions—the rationally organized production sites that showcase biodiversity, sustainable technologies and social integration as promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture and NGOs like the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre—and the lived experience of producers—achieving autonomy and self-sufficiency in a context of scarcity, pride in one's accomplishments, and the moral incentive of public recognition. A careful consideration of the interrelations among these three components, as shown in this paper, reveals much about the complex landscapes of power in today's Cuba.

Contradicting common understandings of the Cuban state, the ideal of sustainability in Havana has not merely been imposed from above. Nor has it simply been cynically parroted or subverted from below. Environmentally-sound practices in Havana's model urban agriculture sites, instead, have been constituted through a joint project in which the national (and international) institutions involved in guiding the creation of these sites, and the producers who inhabit the sites, play active roles. Producers have embraced official concepts and priorities for their own purposes and have become adept at identifying new actors and alternative sources of power operating parallel to state institutions. They have sometimes even left an imprint on official formulations, as attested to by the way the experiences and “innovations” of model producers like Manolo and Rafael have been integrated into official representations of the ideal of sustainability. That producers like them have truly become “models” after which other producers—not yet model gardeners—choose to fashion their urban agriculture endeavors35 attests to the effectiveness of the Ministry of Agriculture's competition in bringing producers in line with official goals and programs, further underscoring not just the continuing power of the Cuban state to insinuate its will into the most quotidian of activities, but its ability—despite its lack of material resources—to enlist even those apparently most marginalized sectors of the population in a project that ultimately is being represented as one of the latest achievements of Cuban socialism.

  • Acknowledgments. The generous funding received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2001 and in 2004, as well as that received from the Agropolis International Research Awards Program, run by the International Development Research Centre in Canada, greatly facilitated the doctoral and post-doctoral research that allowed me to collect the bulk of the data presented in this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the support of staff at the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, the Cuban Ministerio de la Agricultura and all producers who have to date willingly participated in my research. Finally, I wish to express my appreciation to the editor of City & Society, Petra Kuppinger, and to the five anonymous reviewers who helped clarify some of the ideas presented in a previous version of this paper.

  • 1

    Although this subject falls outside the scope of this paper, it should be noted that my ethnographic data on urban agriculture largely contradicts this particular reading of recent agricultural reforms. My data suggest that the shift in agricultural policies has been far from unidirectional and has instead been characterized by a tense back-and-forth movement between government policies that emphasize the public good and/or public property and those that condone, if not encourage, private property, individual initiatives, and entrepreneurship. Far from the complementary co-existence of capitalist and socialist policies and strategies which, according to Brotherton (2008), characterize recent developments in the Cuban health sector, the kind of changes that I have observed in the agricultural sector have been fraught with a tension more akin to that described by Hernández-Reguant (2004) in the sphere of cultural production where recently introduced capitalist regimes of value precariously and uncomfortably coexist with government-espoused socialist ideology.

  • 2

    Note that it is not the intention here when speaking of “the state” to reproduce ideas of a cohesive and unitary entity speaking with a single voice at all times, a scholarly habit already aptly criticized by anthropologists such as Akhil Gupta (1995). While the contradictions generally “condensed” by the state are not the focus of this paper, as suggested in footnote number 1 and number 24, it is understood that the Cuban state encompasses multiple actors and contradictory pulls. Indeed, I found that at times the competing visions and needs of the various ministries involved in regulating space in the city of Havana, came close to those described by Verdery's (1991) when discussing in general the inherent “weakness” of socialist states.

  • 3

    These sites included 17 patios (production sites located within private homes including rooftops and balconies) and 12 parcelas (sites located on vacant city lots given in usufruct by the state to individuals interested in bringing them under production). In terms of production activities, 15 of the sites were associated with both animal raising and cultivation, seven were exclusively dedicated to cultivation and seven were primarily dedicated to animal raising. There were 42 producers associated with these 29 sites that were interviewed for this study. Of these 42, 29 (69%) were male and 13 (31%) were female. Their ages ranged from 35 to 90, with 30 (71%) of them being over the age of 55. Only 15 (35.71%) of those interviewed were engaged in full-time employment at the time of the research; the rest were either officially retired (20 out of 42), self-employed (3), or were housewives with no previous connection to the formal workforce (4). The predominance of males and of older people in this sample is usually reported as the demographic norm among small-scale urban farmers in Havana (Cruz Hernández and Sánchez Medina 2001; Murphy 1999). The analysis draws on ethnographic data collected on 29 small-scale urban agriculture sites, a third of which were studied since 1997.

  • 4

    In 2004, the year when the bulk of this research was conducted, the average peso salaries or pensions of those individuals included in the study ranged from 86 pesos to 150 pesos. A package of spaghetti at a state dollar store would then cost from 13–20 pesos, while at the agricultural markets a pound of pork would cost 15 pesos, a bunch of parsley 1 peso, a pound of rice 3.5 pesos, onions 2 pesos a pound, black beans 6.50 pound, and a pound of tomatoes 2.5 pesos.

  • 5

    While as indicated in footnote number 3, age and gender appeared as significant variables in determining who is most likely to get involved in urban food production, my data did not show the variables of “race”, religious beliefs, or political affiliation to be significantly correlated with this activity. While, as shall be seen later, given their grounding in the private, domestic sphere, individuals who engage in urban agriculture as a primary activity are perceived, by some government functionaries, to fall largely outside the reach of the formal state control apparatus, their political perspective range from those who are in favor of the revolutionary government to those who are disaffected.

  • 6

    This trend had been started by the first Agrarian reform, launched in 1959 that had transferred 44 percent of agricultural land in the form of large landholdings to the state. The Second Agrarian Reform, carried out in 1963, further raised the proportion of state-owned and managed agricultural land to 63 percent and a series of measures in the 1980s culminated in a series of measures that transferred additional land to the state so that it ended up with 80 percent of the country's agricultural land (Benjamin, et al. 1986).

  • 7

    This reform did not change property title. The land, while now managed and used by the membership of the cooperative, remained legally under state ownership. Still, while in the past, those who worked the granjas del pueblo were employees of the state and received a fixed salary, now they managed their own production and their income was directly linked to their output.

  • 8

    In March of 1962, the government instituted the ration. But only in 1968, with the so-called Revolutionary Offensive, private grocery stores were incorporated into the public sector. Since then and except for a brief period of experimentation with the Farmer's Free Market in the 1980s, for decades the state in Cuba remained the primary food provider, it was in charge of the ration, the parallel markets, and the allocation of food to schools and workplaces. It was also the official buyer of agricultural products from independent farmers (Díaz Vázquez 2000).

  • 9

    While war metaphors have been typical of Cuban government discourse since the inception of the revolution, the use of martial vocabulary in reference to food gardens at a time of national crisis has also been noted for other countries. An example of this was the language used to describe the so-called Victory gardens associated with the “home front” during WWI and WWII in various parts of the world (Bentley 1998; Crouch and Ward 1988; Symons 1982).

  • 10

    In the poster shown in figure 3, the word casa is not used directly but symbolized by a picture of a house.

  • 11

    Illustrative of this emphasis on food security was the publication of El Libro de la Familia (The Family Manual) co-edited by none other than the Minister of the Armed Forces, and now current head of state, Raúl Castro, and his wife, the recently deceased head of the Federation of Cuban Women, Vilma Espín. The Family Manual, chapters of which were regularly published in Bohemia magazine during the harshest years of the so-called Special Period (1991–1993), sought to teach basic survival skills in preparation for an Option Zero-type scenario—a projection that, in the experience of many Cubans at the time, was rapidly becoming reality. The manual included a section with technical information on how to create a domestic garden, including the nutritive qualities of various crops, and related survival tips such as how to survive an entire year on the potatoes cultivated in one's home garden.

  • 12

    This was a departure from the message given in a 1979 speech by Fidel Castro where he stated: Before [the revolution] the most a citizen could aspire to was for the state to build a post office, a telegraph station. . . . Today, citizens think it is right to expect everything from the state . . . and they are correct. And this is precisely the result of a collectivist mentality, a socialist mentality. Today, they expect everything from the administrative apparatus, and above all, from the political apparatus that represents them. Today, they do not need to rely on their own efforts, and their own means, as in the past. The fact that people today expect everything from the state is in keeping with the socialist consciousness that the Revolution has created in them (in García Pleyán 1996).

  • 13

    This reflected the political bias of international funding institutions which were unwilling to get involved in projects directly involving the Cuban state, but instead sought engagement with Cuban NGOs perceived to have a humanitarian agenda and a local community focus.

  • 14

    According to a United Nations report cited by Hearn (2005), by the year 2000, there were over 2000 partnerships involving Cuban and foreign non-governmental organizations. These included a variety of religious institutions such as CARITAS and the U.S-based Catholic Relief Services.

  • 15

    All NGOs in Cuba have a governmental counterpart to which they are accountable. Although a few NGOs existed in Cuba prior to the Special Period, it was after the 1992 revision of the Constitution that certain cultural or scientific Cuban celebrities, having a patrimony that could benefit larger society, were allowed to constitute themselves as Foundations. This was the case with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre.

  • 16

    The Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre has received assistance from a number of international funding agencies including: International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Oxfam Great Britain, and the Evergreen Foundation of Canada.

  • 17

    There was the network of state-endorsed stores named Consultorios Tiendas Agropecuarios which, among other things, sold agricultural inputs, such as seeds, to small-scale producers at affordable prices. As well, there were the Delegates of Agriculture appointed by the Ministry to every municipality in Havana who, while charged with supervising activities on these sites, were unable to do so given the multiple demands on their time and the meager resources at their disposal. The territories under the jurisdiction of each Delegate—who often circulated on foot because lacking alternative transportation—were too large, and their agricultural constituents too numerous, to allow for effective monitoring and guidance. Besides, these Delegates had more important tasks that took precedent to overseeing the work in patios and parcelas, such as coordinating delivery of produce to public schools and monitoring production at organoponic gardens in each area.

  • 18

    Elsewhere, I (Premat 2003) discuss how both this census and the competition for the title of model garden could be interpreted as examples of what Foucault (1979) labeled disciplinary technologies.

  • 19

    It should be noted that the Movement of Patios and Parcelas, and its associated competition for the title of model garden, followed a well-established pattern in Cuba that had important precedents in the socialist emulation campaigns and the emphasis on moral incentives common in the 1960s and the latter 1980s. In this respect, the urban agriculture competition described here does not constitute a break from previous government practices but rather it can be seen as a novel application of previously existing strategies utilized for mobilizing the Cuban population. These strategies, according to Susan Eckstein (1994), were deployed by the government particularly at those times when it faced a hard currency crisis that ruled out a reliance on material incentives.

  • 20

    All personal names of gardeners are pseudonyms.

  • 21

    At that time, there was only a strip of soil in the patio, along the neighbors' fence, where Rafael had two plantain trees.

  • 22

    The number of subprograms officially recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture as of 2000 totaled 28. These subprograms were used also to measure the performance of other urban agriculture sites like organopónicos.

  • 23

    The complete list of subprograms in 2001 included salad greens; medicinal plants; ornamental plants; trees; coffee and cacao; plantains; root crops; beans; beekeeping, aquaculture, and the raising of rabbits or guinea pigs, control, use, and conservation of the soil; production of organic matter and production of animal feed.

  • 24

    The Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre was particularly interested in promoting the practice of permaculture, as advocated by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who proposed the creation of sustainable, closed systems of production whose design would attempt to mimic “nature”(Mollison 1988). Although in many respects, the permaculture ideals coincided with those of the Ministry, they diverged in some respects. For example, whereas in permaculture weeding is not promoted, it was certainly endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture Representatives who believed hygiene was of outmost importance.

  • 25

    The cleaning up of the garden under Rafael's directions involved hiding messy yucca shoots; removing dried up plants; moving lettuce plants from one spot to another; and tidying up his compost pile. This, as he understood it, was to meet the requirement for health and hygiene, verbally communicated to him by the local Ministry representative.

  • 26

    While higher level Ministry officials, in fact, insisted that it was the quality not the numbers of subprograms that mattered, the representatives involved in the pre-selection of gardens at the level of the neighborhood consistently mentioned the number of subprograms as an important criterion.

  • 27

    The fact that titles are awarded at the level of the district, the municipality, the city, the province and the nation, and that they are either re-instated or lost each year, only provides further incentives for producers to excel and outdo others in their category in their approximation to the ideal site.

  • 28

    As corroborated by a study I recently completed in Havana, those sustainable practices that are most fully embraced and appropriated by producers in general, are those that have a positive material effect: that increase production and/or minimize cost, at a time when other, less ecologically benign technologies are unavailable or unaffordable.

  • 29

    Other non-governmental organizations, like the Asociación Cubana de Producción Animal (Cuban Association for Animal Production, ACPA) and the Consejo de Iglesias de Cuba (Cuban Council of Churches, CIC) offered similar rewards to exemplary producers throughout the city and, hence, also played an important role in the creation of ideal sustainable production sites.

  • 30

    In the end Rafael was unable to access this governmental funding but a year later managed to receive considerably more money from an international funding agency promoting sustainable development.

  • 31

    This has become particularly important of recently when “vigilance” has been underscored and demanded by a leadership concerned with the deviations and disorder that have grown as a result of the economic crisis.

  • 32

    This perception of an unwelcoming world outside the home connects with some the negative consequences of the economic crisis, including the social and physical deterioration of neighborhoods and decreased access to entertainment options for a population with meager peso earnings.

  • 33

    By May 2007, in his old bedroom, which was by then turned into a community resource centre, Rafael proudly displayed several awards from the Ministry of Agriculture and other Cuban and international institutions for his work promoting sustainable agriculture and community development.

  • 34

    I am here referring to the official statement issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in March of 1996, which, as mentioned by Dilla and Oxhorn (2002) marked the beginning of an official offensive against certain expressions of civil society within Cuba that particularly targeted NGOs perceived to be working in line with U.S. interests.

  • 35

    Manolo was mentioned as a source of inspiration, advice and assistance by producers in 11 of the 29 sites included in the study, while Rafael was likewise mentioned by producers in nine sites. That the majority of these sites had no direct connection with the FANJNH or with the Ministry of Agriculture (67 percent for Rafael and 82 percent for Manolo), is significant since it suggests a considerable widening of these institutions' sphere of influence.

References Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Shifting International Terrains and Cuba's New Agricultural Developments
  5. Transformative Acts of Integration: The Competition for Model Gardens
  6. Conclusion
  7. References Cited
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