An Interview with Federica Bono
Cuba’s thousands of agricultural cooperatives are responsible for about 56% of Cuba’s growing land, and employ an estimated 300,000 cooperative worker members. Some observers say the cooperatives more efficient than the state-owned parts of Cuba's agricultural production.
Federica Bono is an Assistant Professor of Human Geography at Christopher Newport University joins Dru Oja Jay to discuss her observations of Cuba's vast network of agricultural cooperatives. Dr. Bono has written about food access, the concept and practice of solidarity, and border relations. In 2015, she spent time living with agricultural cooperatives, and interviewed dozens of worker-members.
Spatializing Solidarity: Agricultural Cooperatives as Solidarity Transformers in Cuba, by Federica Bono and Maarten Loopmans.
Dru Oja Jay: So welcome back to Half Past Capitalism, where we talk about alternatives to capitalism as if they were possible. This show is part of the Harbinger Media Network.
Federica Bono is a assistant professor of human geography at Christopher Newport University in the state of Virginia. She has written about food access, the concept and practice of solidarity, and border relations. A few years ago, she did some very interesting research on cooperatives in Cuba, which is what we're discussing today. So welcome, Federica.
Federica Bono: Thank you for having me.
Dru Oja Jay: Thanks for being here. So just to start, I guess I just wanted to get a sense of your experience. You spent some time in Cuba- this is several years ago- but you interviewed several dozen Cuban farmers and agricultural workers who are part of cooperatives. So I was just curious to get your sort of- before we delve into the history and all the details- I just want to get your high level impressions. What was that like?
Federica Bono: Yeah. So I was there in 2014 and 2015, and I spent several months in a rural area in the center of Cuba. This was for my doctoral dissertation. And so I lived with a Cuban family, and I spent time talking to these farmers, and also the people that worked in the communities that were not farmers. And so we had all these conversations about the cooperatives and how they function and the different community relations that were happening in the area. And so that's how I got interested in studying more these solidarity relations, because that was something that immediately struck me that was so apparent, that I would see people gifting each other things, and food. And so I really wanted to dive deeper into that.
Dru Oja Jay: So a great deal of Cuba's economy is state-owned. But what my understanding is, that the cooperatives have become a really big part of the agricultural sector in particular. So, yeah, I guess I'm curious- just from the sort of macro perspective- what does the Cuban government achieve by promoting cooperatives and creating cooperatives?
Federica Bono: Yeah. So this is a result of the revolution, which was essentially a combination between a socialist movement and a peasant revolt. And so in order to keep farmers happy, they wanted to make sure that they were not expropriating farmers. Actually, the revolution was a way to provide those people that had been working the lands before the revolution as tenant farmers, in very precarious conditions, it was a way to give them that land that they were working on. And so that's a big, big, thing that the Cuban Revolution achieved, was to keep these farmers happy by giving them the land.
And then there were also other reasons, which was that they wanted to provide the rural population with basic services. And the only way to do that was to create cooperatives. So there are several cooperatives. Some cooperatives have emerged more organically, that are credit and service cooperatives where farmers come together, share the means of production to achieve economies of scale. But then there are other cooperatives that are more production cooperatives, and those are cooperatives that were incentivized by the Cuban government in the '70s, in order to really concentrate the population and provide them with, running water, electricity. There was also a food redistribution component that the cooperatives were doing. So that was really a way of bringing a good quality of life to the very remote rural areas. And they wouldn't have been able to do that if the farmers were all scattered.
Dru Oja Jay: Fair enough. Can you talk a bit about the the overall picture of the Cuban agricultural and food distribution system, overall, and how cooperatives fit into it? Just so we understand that.
Federica Bono: Yeah. So the way it works are there are three types of cooperatives, and one- like I already mentioned- the credit and service cooperatives, where a farmer family owns their land, but they share with other farmers irrigation, machinery like tractors, this kind of thing, and also the ability to get a credit from a bank, like a loan.
And then another type of cooperative is a producing cooperative, agricultural production cooperative. There there's really a division of labor happening. So all the land is pulled together and then some farmers will tend to the cows and other farmers will grow beans. And so there's a real division of labor, and then the profits are redistributed among those farmers.
And then there's a third type of cooperative, and that's a cooperatives that emerged in the '90s after the crisis. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a huge economic crisis, and so the government broke up different state farms and they created smaller cooperatives where this was the model. They used a model of their agricultural production cooperatives, but the lands remained state-owned. So it's like a permanent lease to the farmers. And then the way that it's set up is that each of these cooperatives makes plans- production plans- with the board of the cooperative, and with some representatives from the Agricultural Ministry that come to visit them. And they say, "okay, I'm going to harvest- or I'm going to plant- so many hectares of that crop, or that crop. And then they're going to also establish how much of that they are basically selling back to the state. And then in return the state gives them inputs. So fertilizer, pesticides, anything they need in order to produce.
And there are some products that cannot be sold on a private market. And all of that production necessarily goes to the state. And then everything that the state companies purchase, that will then be redistributed to different food outlets throughout the country. And so the rationing system is a component, but also there are state stores. And then the cooperatives themselves, they can also decide to redistribute or organize their distribution more at the local level, where they sell food at cheap prices to like local schools, health care facilities, and so, directly. And so it is really this redistribution system that is coordinated- kind of like centrally, or by provinces- and that aims to bring that food to the people of Cuba.
Dru Oja Jay: It's an interesting combination. It seems like it's heavily centralized, in the sense that it's coordinated, and the purchasing happens in pretty centralized ways at different levels of government, and different levels of institutions. But then, at the same time, you have this sort of- I guess, nominally democratic governance at the local level where things are managed cooperatively.
Federica Bono: Yes, the cooperatives have a democratic decision making process where the boards of directors, they have general assemblies every month, where all the members of the cooperatives come together and they collectively decide on the production plans, and stuff like that. Yeah.
Dru Oja Jay: I find that so interesting because it almost seems like an inversion of what we have in Canada, for example, where most of the work is probably done by migrant workers, who have almost no rights- certainly no democratic rights within the workplace. And then the food distribution system is marked by theoretical freedom, in the sense that there's a free market where anybody can buy from whoever.
Federica Bono: Yeah,
Dru Oja Jay: But it doesn't really have that sort of democratic effect. So yeah, like, I'm curious, I'm curious, just coming from a sort of a free market economy- which you've studied as well- and comparing it to Cuba, how do you see the sort of strengths and weaknesses there?
Federica Bono: I think a big strength of the Cuban model is that they really try to provide food to everybody, regardless of their contribution to the economy, right? The right to food is something that is inscribed in the constitution of Cuba. And so there is this connection happening from the farmers to the people, and the way that farmers talk about it is also very interesting, because they really, really see it as their responsibility, that they produce food for the people.
And so, the way that it's set up is very interesting and has a lot of potential. And the way that it's working out, in practice, there are of course, broader contextual factors that make that there are problems in the system. That has to do with the fact that Cuba is a poor country, that they are lacking resources, that sometimes there's not enough transportation to get the food to where it has to go. And so it's left in the field and it goes bad. But it's definitely more comprehensive in the sense that it's not about, like in the free market system, where you're basically left to figuring out how to get your food on the table. So that's, of course, a big difference: that the country sees is it as its responsibility to provide people with food. And the issue is that they are not always succeeding in doing that, because of, I think, factors that are beyond the mere cooperative system, the way that it's set up.
Dru Oja Jay: Right, yeah. So, let's get into that a little bit. I mean, Cuba has gone through at least- I'm sure more than two- but two notable sort of crises. One in 1989, of course, with the fall of the Soviet Union, where they they lost- maybe not overnight, but pretty quickly- a lot of their agricultural inputs, fertilizers, pesticides, equipment, all kinds of stuff they were relying on for their mode of agricultural production just sort of went away, and they had to make a massive shift toward organic farming. And I'm assuming that the cooperatives had something to do with that.
And then, of course, there's the more recent crisis, which where there's clearly a lack of availability of food, as well. Obviously, after '89, there was a very strict rationing system. And today, I guess- I don't know, maybe you can talk more about today. But but I'm curious if you could talk, I guess, about the role of cooperatives in addressing both of those crises.
Federica Bono: Yes. In the '90s, the crisis was indeed more of a shortage of inputs. And so that led to huge deficiencies in the population, because it was a very- you mentioned organic agriculture- Cuba was a very mechanized agricultural system. It has been compared to the California agricultural systems with that level of mechanization and use of chemicals. And actually, almost overnight, indeed, they did lose all of that support, because the main trading partner was Russia. And so there were a lot of deficiencies like B12 shortages, neurological issues.
And what happened then, is that people started to basically look at vacant lots in the cities, and they started to occupy those and produce their own vegetables, and raise chickens. And the state government saw that, and they institutionalized that. So the organic farming is, and as it is now, is a network of urban- mostly urban or peri-urban- organic farms that are receiving benefits from the state in terms of inputs, in terms of agronomists that are visiting them, seeing what they need. They get training, there are little shops that they can go to if they need seeds and stuff like that. So that's something that is working quite well.
But what I did see when I was there- and I totally did not expect that based on the literature that I was reading before I went to Cuba- I thought it was all organic. And that's not the case at all.
If you go to the rural areas, then you will see that most cooperatives are still producing in more traditional ways. They are using pesticides, they are using chemicals, fertilizers and all of that. So one thing that the government did- and that's to your question about what is the role of cooperatives, too- in those crises in the crisis in the '90s, is that they did break up these large state farms because they did recognize that cooperative systems were more productive. And so they broke up large state farms and basically gave more resources to cooperatives, in an attempt to stimulate the domestic food production. And today, a lot of the problems are related to food imports.
And so what we see is that there is a shortage in the stores, and that we see that Cuba is not even able to provide the rationing that they want to provide anymore. So, yeah, there was a strict rationing, but there has always been a- they call it la libereta- a card where people would get certain items. Like they could get, I don't know, a piece of bread every day, some milk, some rice, you know, to meet their family needs. And over the years, what we've seen is that that rationing amount has been decreased steadily. And so things have been food items have been taken out.
And the rice now is lasting only two weeks, for example, and then they have to find rice elsewhere. And so today what we see is that there's huge lines before the rationing stores, the state stores. People are even sleeping in the lines in order to get the food. They have separated- you cannot just go every day anymore, but certain people can go on a Monday, and other people can go to Tuesday. And I know of people having to wake up super early in the morning, at 4 a.m., in order to get a piece of bread. And so it's really like that.
But I think that that's more of an urban problem. And I think that in the rural areas, because of the cooperatives and the farmers there, and because of the community networks that are available in those in those rural areas, it's not there's a massive problem of food in the rural areas, more a problem of electricity outages in the rural areas, and in the urban areas. It's more the opposite, I think.
Dru Oja Jay: And you were saying it's a result of sort of a lack of resources. Can you say a little bit more about that? Is that the reinstated economic embargo after the sort of brief thaw, or is there something else going on there? Is there some U.S. government issues? What do you see as the source?
Federica Bono: I think there are several sources. I think a big part is the shortage of resources and the strengthening of the embargo for sure. We cannot deny the role of the embargo and the sanctions, the COVID pandemic, that has drastically reduced the number of tourism. Sanctions that have been imposed. You know, tourism has been since the '90s one of the main sources of income for the country. The pandemic has decimated that.
And there's also sanctions imposed by the US government that has influenced that process. And this is not even a Democratic versus Republican issue. This is just purely a domestic policy issue where the president wants to appeal to the Cuban-Americans demographics, voters. And so President Biden did reverse some of the things that Trump did, like there are flights to Cuba from the US, but he also made sure that any European that travels to Cuba after January 2021 cannot get a visa waiver to come to the U.S. anymore. So they have essentially placed Cuba on the same list for visa exemptions, visa waiver exemptions as Iran and North Korea. And so that's something that President Biden and that's also a huge shock for tourism in Cuba, because now every European will have to go and apply for a visa if they also want to come to the U.S. on a trip. And so the U.S. policies are definitely a factor.
But I also think there's just a lot of corruption on the island, and bad management of different things. And so we definitely also have to recognize the factors from Cuba itself. I don't know too much about- like, I know what corruption is like. I saw it all the time, it was everywhere. And there's very little corruption, and then there's very large scale corruption, more at higher levels. But Cubans were all the time complaining more about management issues rather than the embargo, interestingly enough.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, I mean, it makes sense that one would complain about what one sees directly and has control over. But yeah it sounds like it is sort of both. Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things that you would see like in terms of mismanagement, and do people see that as a new thing or a recent development, or is this sort of a transcendent feature of the way the government set up?
Federica Bono: Um, I can't speak to when it emerged, I think. It's all always been there a bit. And there is plenty of research that at that talks about the role of the black market in a planned economy, and how the planned economy is structurally producing shortages, which are then like filled up by the black market, and how that system kind of reproduces itself. And so there's plenty of research on that, and how these two kind of go together.
In terms of mismanagement, farmers are mainly complaining that if they construct a plan with the state, why is it that in return they don't get the inputs that they need? And so, a lot of farmers were waiting on pesticides and meanwhile the pest was eating their crops, and they were also complaining that when something like that happened, they were the ones losing out. Because the company that gives them the inputs, which is a state company, is not the same company that buys the products. And so the state company that buys the product is like, "well, your crop doesn't look good, so I'm going to give you a lower price." And then the farmer will be like, "Yeah, but I didn't get the inputs." "Oh, well, but that's not my problem," even though it's all state owned, right? So they were complaining about that a lot.
They were saying the shortage of inputs, and mainly- and it's not that it's not there, because then you will see that they could get it via the black market. So it's not that necessarily that there's a lack of the inputs. Of course, the black market, you know, it has to come from somewhere. So that's mainly people that are stealing from state warehouses; that are working there and stealing, and then making money on the side. And so it's a whole vicious cycle, that reproduces itself and that creates shortages, and then fills them up with the black market, but then that creates new shortages.
So farmers were really complaining about the lack of inputs. Or then there was another farmer, for instance, that we were talking, and he was a tobacco farmer. So he needs what they call cuhos[sp?], which is like wooden stakes where they can hang the tobacco leafs over. And he says, "Why does the president of my cooperative, why doesn't he order tthose cuhos months in advance? Like, he knows that we have to harvest that? Why hasn't he still ordered them?" So that's a management issue that they were talking about.
And then, some people were also talking how the cooperatives in the area, under some presidents they were doing amazing, and under other presidents they were doing really badly. And so it really matters who has the leadership of the cooperatives as well.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, certainly the benefits and pitfalls of democracy come into play there. I want to talk a little bit about your paper you wrote was about solidarity between farmers and within different farming communities. Can you talk about the different sort of relationships of solidarity that you saw? And obviously you referred to this earlier when talking about how the resilience of the rural areas when it comes to the food supply. But yeah, can you can you get into that a little more?
Federica Bono: The different types of solidarity, yes. So the first thing that I saw was indeed strong community solidarity where there's reciprocal networks with between neighbors and farmers, and farmers would give some food for a cheaper price because they know each other, and because they're living in the community. And then there were different neighbors helping each other out. And then one day, the dad of the family that I was living with, he came home with a chicken. "Yeah, my neighbor gave it to me," and I was like, "why?" "Well, I gave him some construction material a few weeks ago, so I got this in return now." So it was a whole network of these reciprocal relationships that I found very interesting because it was not just about food: they would mix any type of favors.
And and then as I started to study this more, I started to analyze this more, I realized that these community based solidarity networks were connected at two different levels, and eventually to the rest of the country, with the way that the cooperative system is set up. So because all of these people are somehow connected to the cooperatives, whether that's the credit and service cooperatives, or the agricultural production cooperatives. These communal relations are taken to the General Assembly, basically. So they're filtering in the General Assembly of the cooperatives. And so at the same time, the cooperative has some responsibilities that are inscribed in a law, that are some more types of institutionalized solidarity, because they have to do it.
So, for instance, the cooperatives are responsible to meet the basic needs of their members and their family members. And so that means that they have to redistribute food. And if they don't redistribute food, they have to redistribute the share in the profits. The law says they have to provide for the basic needs of the family members. And at their origin, this meant redistribution of food, but also soap, toothpaste, and things that they really need on a daily basis, and are hard to get in general in Cuba.
But other things that they have to do is that they have to take care of some factors in the community. Like if the doctor's office needs painting, it's a cooperative that has to do that. If a road needs to to be fixed, it's the cooperative that has to do it- or the cooperatives that have to do that- so they have to group together and do that.
And then, of course, the the the food that the cooperative produces is then redistributed to the rest of the country. And there's a whole system in place, as I explained earlier, that they also give the food to schools and health care institutions. And then the country itself that tries to make sure that the food gets to people that are not living in rural areas.
And so it's interesting because then you see that we have this institutionalized solidarity system, which is more redistribution based. Together with this community based, networked, reciprocal system, and then the cooperative acts as this kind of node where these two come together and are being transposed and transferred at different multiple scales. So I thought that was very, very interesting.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, I was really interested. You also talked about the the sort of relationships of solidarity between cooperatives. So you'd have one cooperative that produced a little more one year, and another one that produced a little less than they would, that they would help each other meet each other's quotas, which I thought was really interesting.
Federica Bono: Yeah, indeed. That's another thing, too, that I started. The solidarity wasn't confined to the boundaries of one cooperative, but it transcended those boundaries. And that also has to do with the fact that they are inscribed in that community, and so they are linked to these community networks. So, the president of one cooperative knows the president of the other cooperative; so if that cooperative has some issues, one year to meet the plans, and the other one has a surplus, then they do help each other out just because they help each other out, that's what they said, "you know, we just help each other out."
Dru Oja Jay: It's so interesting. I mean, just to recap, there's sort of interpersonal solidarity and inter-familial solidarity, inter-cooperative solidarity, and then all of that in a context of people feeling like their mission is to provide food for the entire nation, basically.
Federica Bono: Yeah.
Dru Oja Jay: So, I'm just really interested to hear- you know, that sounds like a lot of solidarity, in terms of the motive- what's motivating people. Obviously, people are motivated by different things. There's financial motivations- which I want to get into in a second- but sticking with the solidarity, you've studied food systems in other countries, so I'm curious, how would you compare and contrast what you see happening in Cuba with other countries that you've studied?
Federica Bono: Yeah, I think that's a very good question. And I think in the paper we try to answer that question too. Okay, what is driving people for this solidarity? And that is different at different scales, and also at different spatial organizations. So when we look at networks, we see that a lot of it is care and affect for each other, which is much less comprehensive than if you think of responsibility. Right? Which can also be affected, it motivates people to be solidarity with each other. And that responsibility is more something that is related to that redistributional institutionalized solidarity that is inscribed in the law, and that is organized by the state. And it's kind of a centralized distribution system, or a cooperative for distribution system because they also have this responsibility towards their members. And we see that this care is an important aspect, particularly if we think about care for the land and how that plays a role. Because we do see that.
For example, we talked about the crisis in the '90s where there was a big food shortage, or input shortage, and people were struggling to get food. What we have seen is that from the '90s cooperatives have- especially the agricultural production cooperatives where you don't need to bring land to the table in order to to be able to work there- so we've seen new members, people that have no ancestry with farmers, have no links to the land, are entering into these cooperatives wanting to work. And that has, in some of the cooperatives, eroded a bit that solidarity, especially the intergenerational solidarity.
The way that these cooperatives emerged is, again, incentivization by the state, but essentially, several farmers pooled their land. And so these original farmers, they were working the cooperative the way that they had been working their farm before that. So they had a strong connection to the land, and a strong care for that land. And so the redistribution of food was benefiting not just the active members, but also the retired members. Now when new members come in and they decide we don't want a redistribution of food, we want a redistribution of the share of the profits based on the number of hours that we work, then someone that is retired does not benefit from that. And so we did see some erosion there, which we call 'degeneration.'
But here then we also saw instances where the community solidarity played a role in trying to reverse that again. So a neighbor that's a retired co-operative member, her neighbor is one of the boards of directors of a co-operative, and she can say, "come on, we are old. We brought our land to the co-operative. Can you please redistribute some milk?" And so there you see again this friendship relation coming in.
So in general the redistribution, the institutionalize solidarity, is much more comprehensive than the community network. But they're both important, I think, in order to connect all these skills.
Oh, and the comparison with the other countries: I did research in- the only other system that I studied was community supported agriculture in Belgium, where very interesting solidarity, also towards a farmer, which is something that we don't see in Cuba. In Cuba, it's the other way around. And actually when I mentioned this to farmers in Cuba, they were like, "oh, we need this here!" And so the community supported agriculture systems in Belgium, the way they work is that consumers come together and they and the farmer produces a range of crops for the families, and there are no rules as to how much food you can take. The rule is that you have to take enough to provide for your family, but not too much so that you have to freeze the vegetables. So they they have to maintain in your refrigerator. So that means that people cannot take too much. But it's not controlled. There's nobody at the door that says, like, "how much did you take?".
And I also remember that there were discussions between those members of the supported agriculture and the farmer, and the farmer was very transparent in his finances and the members were like, "wait, you don't pay yourself a salary? That's not right. We will increase our share so that you can get a salary." And so that's a different type of solidarity. But again, the care for the land is something that returns here because the community members, since they go to the farm and they harvest their own vegetables, they start to develop this relationship of affect to the land which contributes to the solidarity that they have towards the farmer as well. They also help him to work on community work days, and stuff like that.
Dru Oja Jay: The solidarity, the the, the care for the land is really interesting because I almost see it as another layer of solidarity, of solidarity between people and institutions and stuff, but then you also have solidarity between species, or between humans and the ecology that sustains them.
Federica Bono: Yeah, yeah.
Dru Oja Jay: I'm curious what that looks like in Cuba. Do you think that the way the agricultural system is set up promotes or affords a particular relationship with land or ecological systems?
Federica Bono: It depends again on the type of cooperative. The credit and service cooperatives are really families. They maintain in their family, and so the crops that they produce, they keep all the profits of the crops that they produce. So they have cared for the land because of generations already. Also, people probably living in the community for generations will have a different type of affinity for the farming profession than than somebody who is coming from outside the communities. I haven't seen much on how the system promotes any type of ecological consciousness. I remember actually on occasion that we were traveling and my friend was complaining because some Cuban had thrown some garbage on the street. "Look, people here, they don't care." And, you know, she was complaining about that. So, yeah, I don't see that it's much different than other countries in that aspect. Like, they're probably people that are more environmentally conscious just like in other countries.
Dru Oja Jay: Fair enough. And the other thing I wanted to come back to is, is it seems to me that in Cuba, you have certainly a different set of incentives than one would expect in a U.S., or Canada, or Europe, where you have somebody who's like- you have distorting effects, basically, of the foreign currency, and also of the heightened need for food. So you have, for example, a bartender at a resort who's going to make significantly more than a doctor in terms of their annual income. And my understanding is also that people- that some of this influx of new workers into the cooperatives is because that's a relatively well-paid work that you can get in cooperatives relative to what you might make in another another sector in the Cuban economy. Yes, I guess I'm just curious: A, is that true? And B, what are the effects of that? And did you see any attempts to sort of integrate this influx of new workers, or what the effect of those incentives on the food system.
Federica Bono: Yeah. No, I think you're right. I think the main source of inequality in Cuba is this difference in access to foreign currency versus somebody that is just paid in the national peso. That's 100%. Somebody who has relations to the tourism industry has different possibilities than somebody who has not. Somebody who has family members abroad and receives remittances, has different possibilities of somebody who does not have these family members abroad. So that's definitely the case.
How it changed the food system? Well, for starters, there's also an inequality there within the food system. So I remember when I was there that one day there were potatoes available in the community, and that was a big deal because potatoes- when I would go to a restaurant in foreign currency, I would always be able to get fries and olive oil. But potatoes are mostly grown around Havana, and so it's very hard to get them to other parts of the country. And a big part of them are preserved for the tourism sector. And there are foods that tourists can access that regular Cubans cannot. So that's a big thing of how that effects.
And also people working in the tourism industry, for instance, people that are owning- like the Casa Particular is a form of lodging where Cubans open up their their homes. They have to pay back a large amount of taxes for that, get a license for that, but they can make good money by hosting foreigners, tourists. And then you will see that they put lobster on the menu, which is something that will almost always be purchased on the black market, for instance. So there's definitely huge inequalities based on the currencies that people have access to. Yeah.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah. I wanted to sort of loop back to solidarity again. I guess you make this sort of theoretical distinction between solidarity that comes from structures, on the one hand, and then solidarity comes from relationships, that's more organic. Can you talk about that distinction that you describe in your paper with Maarten Loopmans, and maybe just expand on how that could be useful to understand the two different types.
Federica Bono: So we distinguish between organic and mechanical solidarity, which is a distinction that Emile Durkheim made first. And we see that is a solidarity that emerges from a division of labor, which is usually reflected in institutions and redistribution. So the welfare state is also an example of that, and that's the organic solidarity. And then there's also mechanical solidarity, which is more coming from equality, and from kinship. Like, for example, it's something we see in kinship relations, or in like the village I was in, because people were in the same boat. And so that brings solidarity as well.
But what we did in our paper is we created a social- we wanted to understand the social-spatial reflections or structures or- and I'm blanking on the word now- but we wanted to understand the social-spatial expressions, yes, of these different types of solidarities. And so what we see that in the Cuban case, the organic solidarity is institutionalized. So through this redistribution, there is a division of labor. There are farmers producing certain crops, and other farmers producing others. And there's farmers, and there's people teaching, and there's people in health care. And the government tries to bring that all together by making sure that everybody has the food that they need. Right. So that's a division of labor where everybody contributes to a central point and then that central point redistributes these benefits. That's also how our welfare systems work in the West.
The interesting thing with the Cuban case is how they manage to connect that centralized redistribution system with these more local community based solidarity systems that are indeed more- they are more organic, but it's not called organic solidarity in Durkheimian terms, right? But they emerged more naturally, let's say. While he didn't make the distinction between solidarity that emerged naturally- both of them emerged naturally, just based on the structures that are there. Like one is based on division of labor and the other one is based on equality.
Dru Oja Jay: And I guess having thought through these sort of distinction,s and also with your on-the-ground observations, you know, I'm curious what you would share with movements that are trying to build more solidarity, that are trying to move from relations with commodification or exploitation, to acts of solidarity. How would you- I guess what tips, or what insights would you share with folks who are trying to do that?
Federica Bono: Yeah, I don't know if I have tips so much, but I think one thing that comes to mind is the fact that solidarity is, of course, not something that is limited to Cuba. Right? So we do have solidarity in our communities. But as I reflect on these different solidarities, we have solidarity in neighborhoods, and we have churches that organized some redistribution, which is another part of solidarity. And we have local exchange trading systems, where people use time as a currency to provide services to each other. But what we see in all these different types of solidarity, I think, is that it's always a particular demographic that is involved, whether that's income or race. And it doesn't really it transcends these boundaries. And so I think for movements or cooperatives- and one of the one of the messages of our paper is, I think- to really try to create these spaces where all of these different types of solidarity can come together. And so I think a cooperative can play a role in that because a cooperative can unite people from different backgrounds as they become members of a cooperative.
And these people bring their own community solidarities, bring that with them to the cooperatives, and to the meetings in these cooperatives. And so they will reflect on issues based on their own communities that they come from, and so probably bring those solidarity relations with them. And so I think that's kind of the main messages of the paper, is to try to envision some of these spaces where we can have all these different types of solidarities come together. Reciprocity, redistribution, and who knows, maybe even we have the states do some kind of redistribution. You know, I know that's so far. But I mean, if you think about it, we already have food stamps, right? This is something that we have. Why can't we make more direct connections with our farmers to redistribute food rather than have people resort to, you know, convenience stores where they can get to buy processed food with their food stamps? That's not that doesn't make any sense, right?
Dru Oja Jay: So certainly room for improvement in the role of the state. Yeah, I guess I wanted to broaden it out, I guess on that note, there are thousands of agricultural cooperatives in Cuba. And but my sense is that Cuba has been working on a sort of cooperative law and has been trying to expand cooperatives into other sectors where there are hundreds of cooperatives in all the other sort of sectors combined. Do you have a sense of how that's going, or where things are progressing in terms of broadening the cooperative movement from agriculture to other sectors?
Federica Bono: I know that it's going very slow. I know that indeed, they started the cooperatives, but then the law lags behind, and then and there's not always a central store where the cooperatives can get resources. So I only know that it's going slowly and yeah, I don't know too much about cooperatives in non-agricultural sectors, actually.
Dru Oja Jay: And I guess sort of on a similar note, do you have a sense of- you know, given the current challenges and and everything else- and maybe also from from from being in touch with some of your people you interviewed years ago, do you have a sense of where things are headed? What's in the future for the agricultural cooperatives in Cuba?
Federica Bono: Well, several things. The vast majority of the people I interviewed are not even- like a lot of them are not even there anymore. So it's really surprising and heartbreaking, actually, to see how many people are leaving Cuba. In fact, last year alone more than 250,000 people left the islands. And it's the largest migratory movements in communist Cuba, even more than the crisis in the '90s, the special periods. So we don't know what's going to happen because the people that are leaving are those that have higher education, are those young people that have the energy to work, to change things, that are creative, that are innovative, and so their brightest minds are leaving. There's a brain drain.
And so and this is a big problem because Cuba has a structure that is more similar to Western countries, and they have a very high life expectancy, which is, of course, also thanks to- we cannot deny the merits either, of the of the revolution as well. And so they have very high life expectancy, and very high educational numbers, and low birthrates. So they have all these human welfare indicators that are more similar to Western countries than to developing countries. But unfortunately, our young active people don't see a future and are leaving mass en masse to the US. To U.S., but also to Serbia, Russia, countries like that, other countries in Latin America.
So and I don't know what the future is going to hold for the country as a whole. I know some elderly people that have worked their whole life for the revolution are in tears when they think of it. They're like, "what have I done?" or, "what was my life worth? Because I cannot stand this anymore." And so it's really heartbreaking. I hope- I don't know, that the Cuban government is going to wake up and realize that they have to invest in their-
And actually, now that I think about it, maybe this is an erosion of national solidarity, right there. Maybe community solidarity is still strong, but since the national redistribution system doesn't work as well, people don't reciprocate their solidarity to their nation and they want to leave. We can theorize it that way, I think. For the cooperatives itself in the countryside, as long as they get the inputs, they will probably be fine. Because, like we talked about, that's where the food is. On the other hand, somebody who has studied and gets a college degree maybe doesn't want to go to farming, you know, so maybe they're disappointed in that way.
Dru Oja Jay: Great. Super interesting reflections on the Cuban system. So I really appreciate your taking the time. I guess, as a final question, is there anything that you would point people toward if they want to understand more about cooperatives in Cuba, or the stuff we've been talking about?
Federica Bono: I want to say- one thing that I definitely want to say is that I really think we have to separate some of the structures that we've been talking about, and the effects- or not the effects- some of the things- the negative things- that we've been talking about. I strongly believe in this cooperative solidarity system and the way it's set up. I think it's very inspirational. I think we can learn a lot from that. And I don't want to equate that system with some of the problems that the country is having. And so I do think that we have to be able to to distinguish and separate these things, right?
There's a lot written about cooperatives, but not a lot based on actual research on the islands. Me and my coauthor and just a handful more have been doing that. It's just because it's so hard for a lot of scholars to get to Cuba and do research there. You need visas. A lot of times there's chaperoning and state institutions that are reading over your shoulders, and looking at the questions that you're asking. And so I was fortunate enough not to have that situation. So I was able to be there without anybody double checking the questions that I was asking to farmers. I was alone there for most of the time. And then there are some experts, some people that have just written about cooperatives for years and probably have some local- maybe they are Cuban and have Cuban ancestry, or some Cubans. And then I'm thinking of, um-
Dru Oja Jay: Camila-
Federica Bono: Piñeiro-Harnecker.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah, there you go.
Federica Bono: Yeah, she is one that I think wrote a lot of good things about cooperatives in Cuba.
Dru Oja Jay: Yeah. Your final reflection there is interesting in the sense that to understand the things that are going wrong, that you describe the corruption and so on as breakdowns in solidarity, breakdowns in cooperation, in the sense of, you have people who are not- either because they're not receiving enough solidarity, or because they're not giving enough.
Federica Bono: Right.
Dru Oja Jay: Probably a spiral of both, are stealing pesticides, or fertilizers, or equipment, or whatever, and then selling them in the black market. And so you end up with that erosion that's happening. So interesting to think about that in the framework of the sort of positive stuff we've been talking about.
Federica Bono: Yeah.
Dru Oja Jay: But thanks. Thanks so much again Federica for taking the time.
Federica Bono: Yeah it was my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.