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MARL V group experiences Cuba

Submitted Photo MARL V participants from southwest Minnesota met with Reuters correspondent Marc Frank (center) during their visit to Cuba Feb. 15-25. Members included Doug Westerman (left), formerly of Windom; Mike Liepold, formerly of Heron Lake; Don Buhl of Tyler; Monica Anderson of Walnut Grove; Joe Vander Kooi of Worthington; and Louise Worm, of Lakefield.

WORTHINGTON -- Three days before they were to leave on their international study trip, the participants of Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) Class V learned their business Visa had been changed to a tourist Visa, and that many of their planned visits to commercial farms in Cuba would no longer be possible.

Despite the setback, MARL participant Louise Worm, of Lakefield, said organizers adapted the schedule and still provided for one of the most unique travel experiences she's ever had.

MARL is a two-year agriculture and leadership building program open to Minnesota farmers and ag professionals. Each class takes part in in-state programs, a week-long study trip to Washington, D.C., and a two-week international study trip.

MARL Class V learned it was going to Cuba nearly a year ago.

"I was really happy that we got to travel as much as we did," said Worm. The trip to Cuba was her first outside the United States. "I expected that I wouldn't see any Americanized modernization. I was really grateful for that -- what I saw was truly Cuba. We got to see a great deal of the countryside.

"It was a life changing experience because I'd never been out of the U.S. and never seen how a culture really, really lives," she added.

As one of eight women in the class of 36, Worm visited a women's advocate center in Cuba. Other unique experiences were a tour of the university in Havana and a visit to a Cuban home.

"Not everybody got to do that," said Worm, who retired in the spring of 2009 after 33 years as a high school agriculture teacher and FFA advisor.

Viewing agriculture

While MARL V participants experienced many different aspects of life in Cuba, their main focus was on agriculture. During their visit to the country, Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was preparing legislation to improve the sale of agricultural products to Cuba.

Joe VanderKooi, a MARL participant from Worthington, was surprised by how much tillable land on commercial plots in Cuba is not being farmed.

"They are starting to give small, private tracts of land to the people, but they have to bring it back into agriculture production," he said. The blend of capitalism and communism was apparent in the ag industry, as the farmers are told they can farm 1 to 2 hectares, but that the government gets a portion of what is produced.

"The only bad part about it for the farmer is that they're hesitant (to farm)," said VanderKooi, adding that they fear the government will come and take their land at any time. As a result, many of the farmers don't put a lot of effort into growing crops.

Worm said the rural areas of Cuba reminded her of her childhood.

"Their equipment, their techniques are kind of locked in the 1950s," she said. "I found it interesting that they raised one cow or one hog and had it tethered on a rope at a stake."

There are some large scale beef and dairy operations in Cuba; however the MARL group wasn't allowed to visit them because of the change the Cuban government made to their Visa classification.

Worm said they did view some large plantations, including banana, orange and sugar cane.

"They had the police on the (ends) of the rows so people wouldn't go in and pick oranges for themselves," she said. "They have this equalistic idea of society."

The same was true for those who raised livestock. Worm said Cubans raising one cow or one pig were not allowed to butcher it to feed their family. Instead, they had to take it to a community source, where it was rationed out to the people.

Government control

The Cuban population is given monthly food rations, based on the number of people in the family. The rations, however, aren't enough to sustain them for the entire month.

"The people who have jobs, they get paid a monthly stipend, which isn't a lot of money," said Doug Westerman, MARL V participant and former resident of Windom. What money they receive is spent first and foremost on food to supplement their ration, followed by clothing.

"They dress very well," he said. "The teenagers like to have their designer clothes."

Westerman expected the Cubans to be less upbeat about life and to be living in poor conditions, but was pleasantly surprised by the people he met during the nine days they spent in the country.

"While it may not be the prettiest, the plushest or the nicest in terms of homes, the people are taken care of better than I thought they might be," he said. "Their attitude about life was upbeat."

The average salary in Cuba ranges from $10 to $30 per month, said VanderKooi, adding that farmers who are given land to farm can't afford the most basic tools like hoes or shovels.

Doctors are among the higher paid professionals in the country, although Westerman said those who work in businesses that cater to tourists can earn considerably more than a doctor because of the tips they receive.

Many questions

Westerman said the MARL international study trip provided participants an opportunity to experience a foreign country, learn and ask questions.

Perhaps most on the mind of participants was the communist structure in the country and trade issues with the United States.

"After the revolution, Cuba nationalized everything," said Westerman, adding that a multi-million-dollar Hilton Hotel project is now owned by the Cuban government.

"Essentially, an American business owner lost his business and never got any compensation for it," he said. "Any American business owners that had anything (in Cuba), that's now gone."

There are some exceptions to Cuba's sole government ownership. Westerman said they learned of some limited agreements whereby a foreign country may own 49 percent of a business, with the remaining 51 percent owned by Cuba.

With both a bus driver and a tour guide that worked for the Cuban government accompanying them on all of their travels, the MARL participants were able to learn about the country's economy, trade and other issues.

"There were a lot of generalizations, we had to dig a little deeper and sometimes we only got half answers," Westerman said.

The international study trip was one of the final programs for MARL V participants. Members of the group will complete a graduation ceremony later this month.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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