Front Door to Cuba

Excerpt from "Rural Cuba"
By Lowry Nelson

University of Minnesota, 1950
Reprinted in 1970, Octagon Books
- PG. 56

The Economic Seasons

The periods of activity and inactivity on the part of nature are in contrast with those of man. While the summer months are the period of rains and the awakening of life, of growth and maturation, they constitute a period of relative inactivity on the part of much of the Cuban labor force. It is called the tiempo muerto, the dead season. For the sugar cane farmer, there are only minor tasks to do, such as chopping out the weeds I the cane rows, and planting vegetable gardens and caring for them. Mostly there is work only for the year-round labor force on the centrales or in the colonias (cane fields). With the advent of the rains the temporary workers go back to the places from which they came. It is a time of waiting for the cane to grow and mature and for the rains to cease.

For the tobacco farmer, there is work to do in the tobacco sheds-sorting, grading, curing, baling, and shipping to the market-but it is not for him a rush season. For the coffee planter, it is as much a dead season as it is for the cane farmer and more than for the tobacco farmer. The coffee trees need little or no attention until the berries are ripe for the harvest in October or November. Meanwhile, he too-like the cane grower-may plant some vegetables for the family table. It is only the dairy farmer and the producer of vegetables and field crops who must maintain a seasonal diligence and activity during the summer months. This is especially true of the dairy farmer, to whom the changing seasons mean little; but even to him, they do make some difference. For those relatively few Cuban dairymen who grow cane, millet, and corn for green feed during the dry season, the summer rains bring welcome relief from the hard work and expense involved in cutting and hauling feed to the dairy herd. With the rain the pastures become green again, and the cows can harvest their own feed. The green pastures increase the flow of milk, however, and there is more work milking the cows and disposing of the milk. The milk "harvest" is a daily affair, regardless of season, but the dairyman's activities in general do increase during the summer.

As October approaches and the rains fall less frequently, the well-soaked soil begins to dry and there is a murmur of anticipation and activity in the cane fields. The colonos, the cane farmers, inspect the cane and the wetness of the soil, while the mill owners rush the final repairs on the mill. Arrangements are made to supply labor for the season's work. Up in the coffee country, red berries on some of the earlier-maturing trees tell the planter that it is time to make preparations for the harvest. The workers must be engaged, as likely as not the same ones who were hired the year before. The various supplies, picking baskets (latas), and other equipment must be checked and repaired where necessary. Rice and other foods have to be procured to feed the heavy-eating wage hands. The tobacco farmer during October and November transplants the seedlings which were placed in the seedbeds in August and September. The harvest season will not be long delayed, for tobacco requires only fifty-five days to mature.

The dry season, la seca, creeps slowly, gradually through the months of November, December, January, February, March, and April. By January 1 most of the sugar centrales are ready to fire the boilers and begin the feverish activity that will last, for some mills, until the first of June or even later. The dead season of nature is the time of the zafra, the cane harvest, the period that brings all of Cuba into its highest pitch of activity.

What connotations la zafra has for Cuba! For it, hundreds of thousands of balck slaves were brought from Africa. After the emancipation of the slaves, free black men came from Haiti and Jamaica each year, carrying their pitiful packs of belongings including their hamacas, or sleeping hammocks-hordes of men to feed the huge maw that was and is the zafra. Today the work is done mostly by natives of the island. Thousands of Cubans throng the highways, the railroads, and the byways to get to the ills, to the colonias, for the zafra. Millions and tens of millions of tons of cane have to be cut. A hundred thousand machetes in the hands of a hundred thousand men will do the cutting. Millions of stalks of cane-each one held in a human hand for a few seconds while the machete in the other hand cuts it at the bottom and deftly trims the leaves before it is thrown on a pile of other stalks.

Then these millions of tons of stalks must be lifted by sweating human bodies into the large, two-wheeled carts which patient, sturdy oxen will draw to the mill or to the railroad spur. The power exerted by men and oxen in the zafra is stupendous. One wonders what the equivalent in kilowatts would be! It is hard work, often grueling for both man and beast, for Cuba has taken few steps to relegate this burden to machines.

Money flows through Cuba in great amounts and at an accelerated pace during the zafra. Workers who ate sugar cane and bananas or other home-grown foods during the dead season now clamor for the luxury of rice, lard, and oil, which have to come largely from abroad. There is money now to pay the grocer who granted credit after the money from the last zafra ran out. The grocer in turn will pay the wholesaler and the banker. The mill owners, the colonos, the merchants, big and little, pay back the money they borrowed during the dead season. The railroads put on extra helpers to handle the increased freight; they bring supplies to the centrales and to the merchants in the towns who anticipate the expanding demand; they take the cane to the mills from the most distant points and haul the sugar to the ports. And the ports take on new activity, as do the ships that fright the raw sugar to the refineries of the United States and Europe.

The zafra is like Saturday night in a frontier United States mining camp, when everybody gets his week's pay check. Cubans do not exhibit the same intemperance that mining camp workers did, being generally more moderate drinkers, but there is the same energy, the articulation of nearly half a million men with their oxen, their carts, their railroads, their huge grinding mills; the vast movements of men and women from their homes to the cane fields; the squalor of the workers' barracks, the barracones; the heat, the sweat, the fatigue of the long days cutting and loading cane; the disappointments and the defeats; the joys of renewed activity, the satisfactions of wants long felt and now fulfilled; the meeting of old friends not seen since the previous zafra; the fiestas of the towns-all these make the zafra the major event of the Cuban year. It is indeed the live season for man, though it is the dead period for nature.

Bitter Memory of Cuban Sugar, Part 1 of 2 |
Cane and the Cuban Soil | The Economic Seasons |
On the Colono System

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