We were enjoying a breakfast with a plate full of tropical fruits and coffee when our car appeared at the door of Casa Sarahi in Trinidad, the colorful colonial city of Cuba. A young and a handsome man; Jerluis Vera introduced himself as our guide for the day with his flawless English. The plan was to go for hiking and visit a coffee farm on our way. Once I learned that Jerluis’s family owned a farm, I was quite excited to shoot many questions.
“In Cuba, there were already coffee farms before 1959. The French who ran away from Haiti due to revolution in 1790s created large coffee farms in the mountains”
said Jerluis. Apparently, the Spanish and Cubans got involved and in the early 20th century, American people also started investing in coffee farms. “When the revolution came to power in 1959, there were many of these rich American and Cuban landlords who were in control. But with the land reform we established, the maximum amount of land that one could own was only 65 hectares.” he continued.
“People who got more than this had to share the extra land with their workers or they passed these lands to the cooperative. So we had big production in 70s and 80s. But after a while, this started to change for several reasons. First of all, global warming had a negative effect. Furthermore, there were very little incentive to grow coffee and other few crops in Cuba that were regulated by the Cuban government.”
It is known that coffee has been a crucial crop that has been exported for a long time in Cuba and especially the ones that are cultivated in Guamuaya or Escambray Mountain range has particularly high price in the global market. As we were driving through Topes de Collantes, we started speaking about the area. Jerluis told us that there are around 65 to 80 individual farmers there and among them, around 30-35 own their lands and others rent it from the government. They all have to sell mass of the coffee to the government and the tiny bit left is for the family, neighbors and friends. Individual coffee farmers grow other things in their farms to make the land a bit more efficient for family consumption or they bring some extra to the free market like bananas, mangos, mamey, guava and other vegetables and fruits. Coffee that is cultivated and processed in this area is mostly exported to Japan, France and Canada. For the local market, it gets the name Cohiba Atmosphere, for the export market it is called Crystal Mountain. Individual farmers don’t know how profitable this is for the government but they do know that it is not profitable for them anymore. We learn that this is the reason why so many of the farmers are leaving their farms. Jerluis states that sometimes some of them are taken over by older people who want to work for a while but in time they also realize that it’s not worth it.
Meanwhile, we stop by and have a tour among the coffee plants. We see banana trees around and we also understand that the shade of the banana trees partially protects the plants from global warming. We ask the name of the farm Jerluis’s father has. He tells us that farms used to get names when they were big. Generation by generation they tried to keep these names but in the last few decades they have lost this tradition because people are somehow not proud of what they are doing. So nowadays, coffee just gets one name either for local market or export market.
“Somehow, everybody who lives in mountain areas are involved in coffee” he says. “Since we are little, we live among coffee plants, we breathe coffee, we eat coffee. For many generations of Cubans, coffee has been a crop that is an important part of our life. Especially in boarding schools, we had to work in the plantations as teenagers. Young people usually don’t enjoy that. We used to try to skip the harvest and go swimming in the rivers. Or tried to swing with vines like Tarzan and Jane. Stuff like that, that are forbidden, you know? ”
Apparently, there were also many people selling coffee in black market to get extra money and had to hide from the police for long periods. “It was difficult to bring coffee to the valley” he adds. “People would wear big clothes and hide the coffee either to resell or give as presents.”
Last but not least, we speak about the future of coffee in Cuba. “It’s difficult to predict the future of Cuba at the moment” he says. “Agriculture is even harder. Nowadays we have well qualified people who studied to upgrade agriculture but they are not directly working in the field because of several reasons like transportation, access to the regular market to buy all kind of goods, either edible or main needs. Basic things they need for living. Cuban government has this challenge to encourage people to look after agriculture in order to be self sufficient.”
During hiking, coffee talk evolves into a discussion about life in Cuba as the world expects changes recently. Jerluis seems a bit negative about the situation. He implies that changes will happen, but in the favor of certain groups, like it has always been in Cuba. Economic equality seems to be more of an advertisement to the world rather than the reality here. “Young people are afraid to be politically active.” he says. Elections are mostly just formality. We try to understand his feeling of being trapped in such a system as he tells more about his family and his two kids. Jerluis also surprises us with his very detailed questions about Turkish politics considering the very restricted access to internet in the country. I start laughing at one point thinking about my experience in the middle of Europe. Whenever I meet people (especially man relatively older than me) they start explaining my country to me and never ask one single question. I understand once more that being a real intellectual is more about being curious, open minded and respectful.
We say goodbye to Jerluis in the end of the day, having the satisfaction of getting to know an incredible personality and learning lots of stuff about the country. For those who are planning to visit Cuba; the cocktails, the music, the architecture and cigars are great here, but keep in mind that there is more.