Cuba exports city farming 'revolution' to Venezuela

By Magdalena Morales
Saturday, April 23, 2011

CARACAS, Venezuela - In a conference room at Venezuela's military academy, a
group of soldiers listen attentively to a duo of Cuban instructors. The topic being taught is not revolutionary guerrilla warfare as once practiced by Fidel Castro or "Che" Guevara, but the "organoponic farming revolution," communist Cuba's latest export to its closest South American ally, Venezuela.

Organoponic gardening, a system of concentrated, organic urban vegetable cultivation, is taking root in central Caracas amid the piles of garbage, bands of homeless beggars, and tens of thousands of vehicles belching out polluting gas fumes. Inspired by Cuba's system of urban market gardens, which has been operating for several years, left-wing President Hugo Chavez has ordered the creation of similar intensive city plots across Venezuela in a bid to develop food self-sufficiency in the world's No. 5 oil exporter. "Let's sow our cities with organic, hydroponic mini-gardens," said the populist former paratrooper, who survived a brief coup a year ago and also toughed out a crippling opposition strike in December and January.

Inside Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters, soldiers of the crack Ayala armored battalion supervised by Cuban instructors have swapped their rifles for shovels and hoes to tend neat rows of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, coriander, and parsley.
Since his election in late 1998, Chavez has drafted the armed forces to serve his self-styled "revolution" in a range of social projects, from providing medical services to running low-cost food markets for the poor.

Besides the military vegetable patch in Fuerte Tiuna, the government has also planted a 1.2-acre plot in Caracas' downtown Bellas Artes district, overlooked by towering office blocks and located near the city's main museums. The market garden, denominated Bolivar 1 in honor of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar, is being run by an agricultural cooperative set up in a nearby poor neighborhood.

PUBLIC SKEPTICISM

The sight of sprouting vegetables nestling in concrete-lined earth beds behind wire fences in central Caracas causes many passers-by to stare in puzzlement. "This might be all right to provide for a family but not to feed a country," scoffed Diego Di Coccio, a 40-year-old unemployed businessman. "They should use the money to unblock the drains," said chemical technician Hector Gonzalez, pointing to the piles of rubbish in the streets around. Skeptics question why resource-rich Venezuela should need urban vegetable gardens when it has hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farming land, much not in use.

The national farmers' federation Fedeagro, which groups 52 local associations around the country, says it is not opposed in principle to the urban food program. But it demands more government support for the farming sector, which contracted around 10 percent between 1998 and 2002. "The problem is that it looks as though the government is concentrating all its efforts on these city farming plots, and yet the national sector remains in the state it's in," said Fedeagro's technical adviser Nelson Calabria.

Private farmers and ranchers also accuse the government of threatening private property with a socialist-inspired agrarian reform law that says idle, uncultivated rural estates can be expropriated and distributed to landless peasants.

But Chavez, a tough-talking nationalist, defends the urban garden plan as a
necessary strategy to ward off the threat of food shortages and wean the country away from its high dependence on imports. Traditionally, more than 60 percent of the nation's food needs are imported.

To the derision of critics, Chavez has also suggested that Caracas' slum
dwellers, whose ramshackle hilltop homes ring the city, should raise crops
and chickens on their balconies and rooftops. Turn your homes into "vertical
henhouses," he said.

The president, who is accused by his foes of ruining the oil-reliant economy
with his anticapitalist rhetoric and interventionist policies, has also vowed to break what he says is a stranglehold on domestic food production held by rich "oligarchs" opposed to him. During the recent opposition strike, Chavez ordered troops to temporarily seize and search some privately owned food plants, which he said were deliberately hoarding food supplies.

CUBAN INFLUENCE

Critics of the president say he is using strict foreign exchange and price controls introduced this year to wage a vendetta against his business foes by denying them scarce U.S. dollars and forcing them to lower their prices. Others ridicule the urban vegetable gardens as little more than a political gimmick and another sign of Chavez's close ideological ties with his friend and ally Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom he regularly salutes as a revolutionary soulmate.

Since Chavez came to power, Venezuela has become Cuba's single biggest
trading partner, supplying the island with up to 53,000 barrels per day of oil in a bilateral energy agreement. Several hundred Cuban doctors, sports trainers, and technical advisers in areas like sugar farming are working in Venezuela. Although the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also backs the Venezuelan urban farming project, the main inspiration and training comes from specialists from Cuba.

The collapse from end-1989 of the Soviet bloc, Cuba's main political ally and supplier, plunged the island into economic crisis, and its government started up urban vegetable plots to counter critical food shortages caused by the loss of key farm-related imports like fertilizers and pesticides. Cuba claims that 50 percent of the vegetables produced on the island come from urban gardens, but local residents complain that the produce is poor and there are persistent shortages.
"It was established that the main task of the revolution should be to produce food," Cuban Gen. Sio Wong, who is supervising the Venezuelan project, said in Caracas.

HEALTH BENEFIT OR HAZARD?

He hailed the benefits of the Caracas city plots. "No chemical products are
used, so these are the healthiest vegetables that Venezuelans will eat," he
said. But Venezuelan experts wonder whether the polluted atmosphere of central
Caracas could turn the city-center vegetables into a health hazard. They say
that the smog-filled air contains concentrations of carbon monoxide and lead
that could contaminate growing plants.

Despite the criticism, Chavez's government and its Cuban advisers are
enthusiastic about the project, which involves an initial investment of
around $2 million. The Agriculture Ministry hopes to plant 2,470 acres of
such urban vegetable gardens this year and aims to supply about 20 percent
of the nation's vegetables through the program.

"The Hanging Gardens of Babylon that appear in the Bible were basically
urban gardens," said Adolfo Rodriguez, head of Cuba's Urban Agriculture
Project.