Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tinkering with property, from Havana to Hershey

One of the most unlikely tourist attractions in Cuba is the tiny town of Hershey. Located about 40 miles east of Havana, Hershey was established by Milton Hershey himself in 1918 as a site to mill and refine sugar used in chocolate production. Like many other sugar towns in Cuba, Hershey had a sugar mill at its heart, with the town itself, housing for workers, and sugar fields built around it. Milton Hershey also constructed an electric railroad which ran from Hershey to Havana, allowing the company to bring the refined sugar to port. He sold the mill in 1946 to the Cuban Atlantic Sugar Company; it was then nationalized after the 1959 Cuban revolution, and continued to produce sugar for several decades. Today, however, Hershey is something of a ghost town. The Cuban government closed nearly half the country’s sugar mills in the early 2000s, including the Hershey mill, as part of a mass restructuring of the sugar industry. This left the town desolate and crumbling, with residents reminiscing about its glory days, while the lands once farmed for sugar became overgrown with dense thickets of marabú, a virulent, quick-spreading weed. (Hershey is, however, still accessible by the same ancient, rickety train, facilitating myriad tourist accounts of post-industrial decay reminiscent of the recent rise of American Rust Belt “ruin porn.”)

The mass closure of sugar mills created situations much like Hershey’s in towns across Cuba, where the growth of marabú on abandoned canefields began to seem to outpace that of edible crops on productive land, even as the country’s food imports rose to up to 80% of its domestic consumption requirements. While some proposed harvesting the marabú and turning it into a source of renewable energy – and indeed, there has been recent foreign investment in Cuba for renewable energy based on marabú – the Cuban government determined that the millions of acres it covered could be more profitably used for agriculture.  In 2008, Raúl Castro’s government passed Law 259, which granted 10 year renewable usufruct rights to individuals willing to farm idle land in a “rational and sustainable” manner.  Part of a string of dramatic reforms to property rules (including the lifting of restrictions on the sale of houses and cars which had been in place for nearly half a century), Law 259 came as close to allowing private property in land as the country had seen for decades. Rather than continue to restrict agricultural production to cooperatives or state farms, Law 259 allowed individual farmers to hold usufruct rights and farm independently.

Over the first several years that Law 259 was in force, the Ministry of Agriculture reported that nearly 170,000 farmers received usufruct rights. Successful ventures were featured in Granma, the state newspaper, with smiling farmers pictured next to their produce, extolling the virtues of individual usufruct. The reality of the impact of the reform, however, was more complicated. While it appeared on paper that thousands of individual farmers had received usufruct rights to the land, many of these concessions had simply expanded existing cooperatives or been made to individuals working collectively. Many farmers were uncertain about whether the state would take back land concessions based on ambiguous determinations of what was and wasn’t “rational” or “sustainable.” There was also confusion as to whether or not it made economic sense for farmers to build structures and live on land they held in usufruct. And in addition to these uncertainties, making the investment in farming idle land was costly. Marabú is a particularly tenacious weed, and can grow to the size of a tree, requiring heavy equipment for its removal. These were costs and uncertainties that were difficult to bear alone, but made some sense for certain cooperatives or groups of farmers to take on. So Cuban farmers took advantage of the opening provided by Law 259 to make productive use of the land, but in ways that skirted the letter of the law, and were often distinct from the expansion of individual farming the state had intended.

This type of creative practice in gray zones of legality is something that characterizes the relationship between social life and the law in Cuba more broadly. A common Cuban saying that reflects this is inventar - to invent - which is used to describe resourcefulness in the face of scarcity, as well as the creative skirting of the law through engagement in activities ranging from ambiguously to clearly illegal. Inventar could be what you do when there are no eggs left at the state-run market and you buy some from a black market shop. Or when you can’t buy car parts for your '57 Chevy that you use as an unofficial taxi, and you get the parts from a neighbor in exchange for extra ration cards you have for a grandson that now lives in the UK. Or when you marry someone in order to transfer a title to a house to them, evading prohibitions on home sales, and then immediately divorce. Or when you work at a state-run cafe, where you sell your own personal sodas to customers under the table to make a bit of extra cash. Or when farmers expand existing cooperatives through “individual” usufruct concessions, both taking advantage of and violating Law 259. These “inventions” are the creative practices that create markets in all shades of black and gray, keeping the economy moving both because of and in spite of formal property rules.

In December 2012, the Cuban government issued Law 300, which replaced Law 259. Law 300 expanded the category of possible usufruct holders to include cooperatives, increased the acreage available through usufruct concessions, and sanctioned the building of structures on concessions, amongst other changes (see this piece in Spanish by Armando Nova González for a more thorough comparison of Law 259 and Law 300). These shifts incorporated the kinds of practices that farmers had been exercising under Law 259 - practices that had been in a gray zone of legality, but became authorized under Law 300. Much as Peñalver and Katyal describe in Property Outlaws, the illegal practices of farmers can be understood to have pushed needed legal reforms in a productive way.

I think that Law 259, Law 300, and the events in between also tell us a remarkable story about the role of not only illegal activity, but also of creativity, in legal change. On the one hand, the development and promulgation of Law 259 itself was an creative move in response to the burgeoning problem of agricultural production on the island. The Cuban state has explicitly described such recent moves as experimental, acknowledging the economic problems on the island, while conducting such legal experiments in order to "perfect socialism." But as historian of science Hans-Jorg Rheinberger notes, experimental systems also behave as generators of surprises. These surprises emerged in the form of an explosion of tinkering by the populace with the new property rules, which they selectively used and violated in order to “invent” solutions to the uncertainties and costs attached to the opportunities Law 259 provided. Many of these “inventions” were then codified in Law 300.

This brings me to a question I have been puzzling over in the wake of the recent promulgation of Law 300. If Law 259 is understood as a true experiment - which has no predetermined outcome, but is known to generate surprises - can we understand the Cuban state as having implicitly called upon the populace to tinker with its rules, generating solutions that might be more lasting and productive? Or should we understand the promulgation of Law 300 as the acknowledgement of an experimental failure of sorts, in which Law 259 simply didn’t have the desired outcome, and widespread illegal practices forced the state to adjust its strategy? Either way, the story of these recent reforms underscores the importance (which Adriana Premat notes in relation to urban agriculture) of examining both the activities of individuals and the work of the state in assessing recent property reforms in Cuba, understanding that changes in property rules emerge not only from Havana, but also from Hershey.

Meghan Morris

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I would highly recommend Fordlanda ( that tells the story of Henry Ford's failed Rubber Plants in the Amazon. Some really good property issues.

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Feb 10, 2013 2:56:27 PM

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