This story is part of our collaboration with the Cuban digital media project Periodismo de Barrio. Through this partnership, our readers will be able to gain a perspective on Cuba different from that presented by traditional media.
In southeast Cuba there is a dry corridor extending over 11 municipalities in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. The 1.3 million people living there have been directly or indirectly affected by drought. The progressive depopulation of rural areas has a more critical aspect in this region: that of climate migration. These are the life stories of those who have decided to stay.
Reinaldo on stand-by
For too long Reinaldo Mestre had wanted to plant coffee or bananas in his plot of land, but people told him not to do it. And he didn’t, because there, right where he has his crops, the main transport route of the island was supposed to be built.
Reinaldo arrived at El Socorro, one of the settlements along the Carretera Central, between the villages of Songo and La Maya, in Santiago de Cuba, in 1981, when the plan to build the great National Highway A1, which would unite Cuba, was still being developed.
But in the early 90s and after the collapse of socialism in Europe, Cuba had to stall the construction of the A1. In El Socorro, parcels of land were given to farmers so they would not be idle and could produce food during the economic crisis the country experienced. Reinaldo received one of those plots.
At that time, people were told that the location would be temporary, until the construction work was resumed. And since the news about this decision could come at any moment, they should not plant crops that would take time to harvest, like coffee. At least this is what they told him then, and Reinaldo followed these instructions.
But this “temporary” situation has endured, and the unfinished road is at the same stage where it stopped almost 30 years ago: about 12 kilometers from Songo. In all that time, on the small plot of land that—without irrigation systems and without water to make them work—depends entirely on rain, Reinaldo has resigned himself to waiting and dreaming of a coffee plantation. His life has been spent waiting.
Nowadays, at 85 years old, missing a kidney and with an income of 200 pesos, Reinaldo is still in El Socorro—on the same small parcel of land that sometimes does not produce enough to sell; in the same wooden house, with its tile roof and a dirt floor, where running water does not reach.
Far from there, the unfinished dream of the National Highway is just a line on the map, a project of unspecified prosperity for which Reinaldo delayed his dreams.
Adela and the well
Adela Pantoja wanted to be a nurse. But after she graduated from high school in Isla de la Juventud, in the 80s, she had to go back to La Loma, where she was born, about 20 kilometers from Madrugón, in Santiago de Cuba. She returned to take care of her old and sick parents. She started working in the coffee fields at 19. She gave birth at 20. When she was 30, and with 2 children, she met Mayito, a 42-year-old divorcé. They got together and she went to live with him. To work in the fields.
Since then, Adela’s days are all alike. Wake up at 5:00 a.m., make breakfast, go to the farm. At 11 a.m. she leaves the hoe and goes to have lunch. She brews coffee, cleans the garden, sweeps, waters the animals. At 3:30 p.m. she returns to the field until dusk. Her only free time is at night, when she sits for a while and watches TV.
I try to get her to explain how the land is cultivated in one of the driest regions in Cuba, but it is Mayito who speaks, who corrects the dates and who ends up dominating the conversation.
He says that they have survived the three-year drought (which ended up killing almost all the sheep and cattle) thanks to the well. This well is the heart of the seven-hectare farm, which allows one and a half tons of beans to be harvested every year, or 60 bunches of banana to be cut in one afternoon and sent to the markets in Santiago de Cuba.
It took a little more than three months to build the well. Ninety-seven days to dig a hole 17 meters deep. “A real feat,” he repeats in order to emphasize the family accomplishment. Adela explains in a low voice that there used to be another well that dried up; they dug the new one about ten meters from the previous one. She says that with the mule she pulled a huge amount of dirt. The inscription on the well’s curb reads:
“Start date, 10/12/2011. Completed on 03/15/12, on the birthday of my daughter Mayelín. This work was done by Osmay Tejeda, Yordanis Tejeda, Clavel the mule, Coronel the bull … “.
- And you, Adela …? I ask.
Ah, and us…
But her name is not there.
Nieves cooks for the people
Around 6 a.m. the farmers make their way to the coffee plantation and Nieves hears steps and murmurs, the sounds of dawn. Then she gets up and starts boiling water to bathe and make coffee.
Nieves Mojena arrived in Arroyo Llano in 1984, to visit her sister. She got married and stayed. She worked for the local television station, then as custodian of the school. After taking some culinary courses, 12 years ago, she took upon herself the tiring task of cooking for the Cooperativa de Créditos y Servicios Romárico Cordero (Romárico Cordero Cooperative of Credits and Services), which does the catering for almost every occasion in the village. In her 50s, redheaded, anxious, Nieves brews coffee, trying to estimate how many people went to the coffee plantation so that she could prepare the exact amount of food. Today, for example, she cooked eight pounds of rice (a large cauldron), three pounds of peas (two pots), boiled bananas, and a piece of chicken for each, thighs or drumsticks. Sometimes she cooks goat chilindrón [a type of stew], pork, or mortadella in sauce.
At 11:30 a.m. the harvesters weigh the collected grain and rest. It’s Nieves’ time: she clocks in. She likes to do it on time because, she says, “this is how production goes forward. I like to pick coffee beans, too, to avoid a surplus in the supply.” She can receive extra money for each can. Her salary as a cook is 500 pesos per month.
“We are thinking about building a house on the coffee plantations to cook there. It would be easier, because I set the pot and go with the basket, pick for a short time, then go back to check the pot … So they could eat a hot meal.”
On busy days, Nieves returns from the field at about 3 p.m. On slow days, when it gets dark. “When I arrived this afternoon I made congri [a dish of black beans and rice], and with the chicken I cooked for the house, I already have the meal prepared.” In the evening, she prepares a snack and watches TV. At 10 p.m., the electric power generator is turned off, the town gets dark, Nieves goes to sleep; then listens once more for the farmers on their way to the coffee plantation.
Nena is about 60 years old—she’s not sure—and owns a dirt plot planted with bananas, beans and sweet potatoes almost a kilometer from El Socorro, a village on the way to Alto Songo. Nena planted alone, harvested alone, and through that work she fed her children. One day, Nena found her husband with another woman; they had a fight, and the man left Nena and the five boys. “Since then, I do not have a husband, nor do I want one.”
The farm where she lives has electricity and an outhouse. She has to find water or wait for the rain. Nena goes to the well every day and chops wood that she carries on her head. She cooks with the kerosene that she receives every three or four months, 12 gallons each time. Her children are 40 years old and they have already left. Now Nena recounts her life. “I wake up in the morning and if I want I go to the field, otherwise don’t go. I make repairs to the house: the roof tiles, broken-down furniture, cracks in the tables, a light bulb, the dirty places, dirt floor, and my sorrows.”
Georgina Castillo, Nena’s mother, has a small hut in front of the banana plantation, and she is supposedly 60 years old, but she does not remember exactly. According to Nena, she must be 80. A magnificent black woman, hunched but still strong, and noble. With seven children. Until recently, Georgina worked in her garden, but she is not able to do it anymore, so Nena takes care of it now. They live in separate houses.
Nena hasn’t gone to her plot in the last two days. Last time she weeded the crops. Now she is taking care of two free-range pregnant sows. She is happy that one of her children comes to visit her from time to time. The rest of the time Nena and Georgina are alone, not sure of what day it is, and what they did the day before.
The avocado grower of El Caney
Kikito, a middle-aged man, lives in the community of El Caney, Santiago de Cuba. He delivers water to homes, and nowadays his work is in demand due to the drought that affects the province.
The sunflowers of the Virgin Mary
Very close to the sanctuary of El Cobre, Deivi grows sunflowers, one of the most demanded offerings for the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre). In this video he explains how it is possible to cultivate in the eastern region, despite the drought that affects this area.