In the Journals

July 12, 2012


Cuban Agriculture Under Threat

“The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture,” by Miguel A. Altieri and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, from Monthly Review 63, no. 8 (January 2012).


On December 31, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, cutting off Cuba’s supply of fertilizer, equipment, and pesticides. Cuban farms were devastated. Farm productivity on the island plummeted, and food production per capita sank to record lows. In response to the crisis, the Cuban government decentralized farming, ushering in an era of ecological agriculture that created thousands of suburban and urban farms and new innovative forms of organic production. Today there are over 383,000 urban farms in Cuba. Thanks to these innovations, Cuba’s food-import dependency is comparable to that of countries in the industrialized world, including Canada, France, Russia, and Spain. Between 1988 and 2007, production of vegetables, roots, and tubers grew by 145%, while beans grew 351%. By 2007, Cuba imported only 16% of its food supply, compared with nearly 60% in 1991 and over 70% in 1980.

But agroecologist Miguel Altieri and researcher Fernando Funes-Monzote caution that Cuba’s many agricultural achievements are under threat. The use of genetically modified crops is on the rise, and large-scale industrial farming projects, reminiscent of Cuba’s pre-1990s industrial agriculture, remain popular among some Cuban policy makers. These leaders advocate the use of monoculture methods as a way to reduce food imports and increase productivity, especially of potatoes, soybeans, and rice. There are many problems associated with such projects, however, including high costs, heavy reliance on pesticides and machinery, and greater susceptibility to natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

One example is a Cuban government-run pilot project intended to raise national soybean production, known as Cubasoy. According to Altieri and Funes-Monzote, the Cubasoy project would clear 112,432 acres in central Cuba for soybean production; depend on Brazilian imports for 90% of its tractors, direct seeders, and other equipment; and generate long-term environmental costs from deforestation, herbicide use, and the construction of transportation and irrigation infrastructure.

The Cuban agroecological movement also faces challenges from the expanding application of genetically- modified (GM) crops on the island, including soybeans, corn, and maize. The plants are designed in government labs to resist pests and disease while growing higher yields, making it easier for producers to farm on more land but increasing dependence on heavy farming equipment. Some Cuban farmers are concerned that GM crops pose a threat to Cuba’s biodiversity, which is a pillar of the agroecological movement. In September 2010, concerned Cuban farmers called for a moratorium on the use of GM crops, citing possible health and environmental impacts. To date, however, the Cuban government has issued no moratorium.

Industrial agriculture receives millions of dollars in government funding yet is inherently inefficient and unsustainable, Altieri and Funes-Monzote argue. On the other hand, agroecology carried Cuba through the crisis of the Special Period and is inherently sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost efficient. In fact, over the past two decades, “by capitalizing on the potential of agroecology,” the authors write, “Cuba has been able to reach high levels of production using low amounts of energy and external inputs, with returns to investment on research several times higher than those derived from industrial and biotechnological approaches that require major equipment, fuel, and sophisticated laboratories.”

Rather than investing in expensive industrial agricultural projects, the government should focus on improving communication between individual small farmers and cooperative farming unions, linking them with government researchers and new agroecological technologies. The authors argue that coupled with efforts to expand diversified, agroecological farming, Cuba could “produce enough to feed its population, supply food to the tourist industry, and even export some food,” they write. This would not only make Cuba more self-sufficient and productive, they argue, but would allow “farmers and researchers to learn and innovate collectively,” helping to train future generations of professionals, technicians, and farmers.




The Legacy of the Theater of the Oppressed

“Theater of the Oppressed as a Rhizome: Acting for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Today,” by Mariana Leal Ferreira and Dominique Devine, from Latin American Perspectives 39, no. 2 (March 2012): 11–26.


When early forms of Theater of the Oppressed emerged in Brazil in the 1960s as a new style of revolutionary, participatory theater, few would have predicted its proliferation across the globe. Today it is practiced in over 70 countries, with dozens of centers, hundreds of workshops, and even an annual international forum. In their recent article, authors Mariana Leal Ferreira, a playwright and professor at San Francisco State University, and Dominique Devine, an SFSU graduate student and actor, argue that Theater of the Oppressed has been instrumental in “generating new attitudes and respect for others” while teaching human rights worldwide.

Theater of the Oppressed is forum theater that encourages audience participation. Whereas audience members in traditional theater are mere spectators, in Theater of the Oppressed they are transformed into “spect-actors.” They are invited to participate in the theatrical action and “to intervene and propose alternative solutions to oppression,” Leal Ferreira and Devine write.

The authors further argue that Theater of the Oppressed owes its present-day global footprint to a “nomadic habit of growth and propagation,” which they compare to a rhizome. The first “tubers” of the Theater of the Oppressed rhizome sprouted as underground performances in the factories, churches, unions, slums, and streets of Rio de Janeiro.

The first Theater of the Oppressed plays were performed by a group led by Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, who developed a methodology that seeked to educate others how “to recognize and resist oppression in their daily lives” during the dark days of the Brazilian military dictatorship. Shortly after founding Theater of the Oppressed, Boal was imprisoned, tortured for four months by the Brazilian military, and then sent into exile. He lived in Argentina for five years, marking the start of Theater of the Oppressed’s rhizomatic spread abroad.

Unable to return to Brazil, Boal spent 15 years as a wandering educator, playwright, and human rights advocate, holding seminars and teaching Theater of the Oppressed methodology in countries including Argentina, Portugal, and France. After Brazil’s return to civilian rule in 1985, Boal returned to found the Theater of the Oppressed Center in Rio de Janeiro. By that time, Theater of the Oppressed had already mushroomed in many other nations—with ongoing workshops, or “laboratories,” appearing across the Americas and Africa, including in Angola, the Ivory Coast, and Mozambique. Since then, workshops have used the Internet and social media, including Facebook and YouTube, to bring Theater of the Oppressed techniques to wider audiences.

Theater of the Oppressed continues to be used by people around the world to educate and discuss diverse issues that affect their communities, from deforestation to water rights, homelessness to discrimination. A wide range of academic disciplines—including political science, sociology, education, and psychiatry—use Theater of the Oppressed to educate the public about social issues, such as sexual and reproductive rights, race and racism, and psychiatric disabilities.

“Theater of the Oppressed has become an effective tool for teaching critical thinking, social change, and human rights,” Leal Ferreira and Devine state. “It has connected communities that had not initially found common ground in their oppression.”




Populism in Venezuela

“Populism’s Achilles’ Heel: Popular Democracy Beyond the Liberal State and the Market Economy in Venezuela,” by Sara C. Motta, from Latin American Perspectives 38, no. 1 (January 2011): 28–46.


The political ideology and movement around Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is often described as a form of populism. But that term misrepresents the political reality on the ground, argues University of Nottingham political scientist Sara C. Motta. Populism fails to capture the homegrown political realities because of its fixed classification of democracy as a liberal state with an elected class of political elites. Chavismo, however, seeks to transcend the boundaries of the liberal state and market economy through popular democracy.

Debunking the widespread misconception of Chavismo as populism, Motta divides her argument into four parts. First, she takes aim at the flaws in definitions of populism as used by prominent academics, including Mexican politician and historian Jorge Castañeda and Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau, whose “classic elitist views of democracy” erroneously place political elites on a pedestal as the “moral guides of modernity,” she writes. Too often, she notes, political scientists superficially focus their analysis on Chávez’s charisma and rhetoric. In doing this, they miss how “the people” are democratizing power and authority in Venezuela.

Second, Motta argues that the discipline of political science has “dominant prejudices” that presuppose particular concepts of power, ignoring the historical context of Venezuela, where the popular classes have lacked access to political power. These prejudices reserve “disdain for mass mobilization and participatory political practices,” assume that a clientelist relationship exists between the Venezuelan state and society, and presume that political parties are the best way to mediate between civil society and the state. Such prejudices tend to sideline the new and creative forms of popular political agency that have emerged as a result of Chavismo, such as communal councils and urban land committees, which have challenged neoliberal power structures and political institutions.

Motta bases the third part of her argument on her experiences in the Venezuelan community of La Vega, where she lived for three months in 2006, observing the participatory democracy in La Vegas’s councils and committees. Critics have accused Venezuela’s community organizations of reproducing the behavior of the political parties they sought to replace. However, Motta reminds us that the “transformation of traditional power relations does not happen overnight,” suggesting that Venezuelans are still in the process of developing a new consciousness that challenges traditional forms of political power.

Finally, Motta ends her analysis with a stinging critique, accusing political scientists of being “complicit in the silencing of the multitude and their delegitimization as political subjects” by conflating Chavismo with populism. Motta urges political analysts to turn their attention away from the strategies of political elites and Chávez’s personality and rhetoric, and to focus instead on the new forms of direct democracy being created by the popular classes.

“If we focus on Chávez’s discourse, his personalist practice, and the lack of an institutional liberal party system and state,” Motta concludes, “then many of the most dynamic and experimental forms of political engagement, agency, and institutionalization remain hidden from view.”


Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”


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