Cuba's digital destination
“Two days ride and you are still on my property” is a boast you might hear quite frequently from South American landowners. But not in Cuba. Although this island was once famous for its huge ranches, many of which were in American hands before the revolution, those days are long gone.
Agrarian reform, after all, was one of the rallying cries of the revolution. Months after Fidel Castro was swept to power, thousands of large estates were distributed amongst those that worked on them, or converted into people’s collectives. Mr Castro’s own parents’ farm was the first to be confiscated. There is an extraordinary photograph of his mother driving away from her plantation, for the last time, in 1959. She looks furious.
So, when a friend told me that 47 years after all that, there is, still, one private farm in Cuba where the owner really can ride for two days and not leave home, I found it difficult to believe. It had to be worth a visit.
Finca Alcázar is in one of the most beautiful and rarely visited parts of Eastern Cuba. You get there by leaving the impressive Sierra Maestra mountains behind you, and driving for about an hour along a potholed road through gentle hills, dotted with palm trees and sugar cane.
When you are close, you might notice the palm trees seem more deliberately laid out to form an avenue along the approaching road. That leads you to the impressive pillared entrance gates of the farm. We were greeted by a man who had worked there for the last 40 years. Pedro, in a classic Cuban cowboy hat, sat us down in the shady veranda of the main house and said the owner would be with us shortly.
You can tell when María Antonia is approaching. Her pack of dogs precedes her. And these are not the usual Cuban mongrels, but golden haired Rhodesian Ridgebacks. “Lion-hunters,” the landowner informed me, as I patted one on the back. María Antonia is 79 years old, but looks a good fifteen years younger. A squat, grey-haired woman, she has an easy smile and a no-nonsense manner.
Like many Cubans, her instinct is not to talk to journalists; but like many people in their late seventies, age had worn away her inhibitions. She clearly enjoyed speaking her mind:
“Every farm needs an owner,” she said, “because only an owner can care for, can love the land. Look at most of the countryside in Cuba,” she added. “All weeds, because no one feels it is theirs.” Ice cold beers were produced at ten in the morning, and I thought this looks set to be an interesting day in the last communist country in the western hemisphere.
Maria Antonia’s family once owned two large estates, the Finca Alcázar, and another, even larger one, near the town of Birán. The other property was next door to the farm owned by Angel Castro, Fidel’s father. She knew Fidel well as a child, and remembers him as both popular and extraordinarily determined.
I asked María Antonia how she would characterise her own family in those days. “Upper class,” she replied, without hesitation, in the English she learnt during a year’s study in the 1950s in New York.
Like perhaps a surprising number of even the most privileged people in pre revolutionary Cuba, her family actively helped the Castro brothers in their struggle to oust President Batista from power. “Batista was too much,” she said, “a murderer.” Both Fidel and Raúl Castro kept asking us for food and fuel, and we kept giving it to them.
That support no doubt played a part in the fact that while her family’s main farm was confiscated by the revolutionary government, the Finca Alcázar was spared. The reason given at the time was to preserve some centres of agricultural excellence, in this case one where champion bulls were bred.
Inside the main house on the farm, a trophy room has been carefully preserved. Alongside a slightly incongruous knight’s armour, apparently from the C14th, decorative plates with the names of prize winning bulls have been placed on a vast mahogany cabinet. Every year of the 1950s is represented. In 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution succeeded, the series ends.
María Antonia says that she still wins plenty of the prizes at agricultural shows, but that the organisers no longer hand out trophies. She suggests I take a walk to see a barn next to the house. It is full of huge bulls, some weighing over two tonnes. Down the road is a stable with immaculate, pedigree quarter horses. They canter out onto land that stretches to a distant blue mountain range.
Back in Havana, I mentioned to a visiting American cattle rancher that I had been to see the Finca Alcázar. He knew the estate. “It’s the best of its kind in the world,” said John Park Wright the 4th, whose family owned farms in Cuba before the Revolution, adding he would be interested in investing in the business, if he could. Later I spoke to a member of the Castro family. “If only all farms here were run like that one,” he said, “then we would really have an agricultural industry.” I began to wonder whether I had just visited a relic of Cuba’s past, or a glimpse of its future. December 2009