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  • Cuban farmer rides a horse next to a sugar cane field in Las Mangas, Cuba, May 26, 2018.

    Cuban farmer rides a horse next to a sugar cane field in Las Mangas, Cuba, May 26, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 May 2019 (36 minutes ago)

The history of Latin America development changed May 17, 1959 when Fidel Castro handed over arable land to the Cubans who had long worked it.

Cuba is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Agrarian Reform Law (LRA), amid growing hostility from the United States government whose Helms-Burton law seeks to reverse the socialist revolution's land rights achievements.

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Fulfilling one of his main promises to the Cuban people, Fidel Castro signed the LRA into effect May 17, 1959 in Sierra Maestra, the iconic mountains where the guerrilla fight against dictator Fulgencio Batista was carried out.

The regulation not only broke up large estates but also gave land tenure to the Campesinos who had long worked it. Che Guevara, appointed head of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) and who oversaw the land redistribution process said the Cuban government's main priority was to carry out "the social justice that land redistribution brings about."

The 1959 measure was the first of Latin America's anti-imperialist laws to shake up U.S. transnational companies' interests. Cuba's reform set a precedent and high standard for redistributive land policies in the region that other nations continue to seek to emulate decades later. The law limited the size of farms to 13 square km and properties to 4 square km. A later decree in the 2008 helped 173,000 farmers gain title to 3.5 million acres of land, according to Food First. 

"May 17, Cuba: The leaders of the revolution that triumphed on January 1, 1959 returned to Sierra Maestra, the scenario of their epic battles, to enact one the most advanced laws of their time: the agrarian reform."

Although U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower administration showed hostility towards the Cuban revolution from its very beginning, Castro's decision to socialize land access sparked the U.S. to create an explicit economic war against the island, implementing an economic blockade in February 1962.

Access to land and real estate in Cuba still creates controversy as the White House recently activated titles III and IV of the ​​​​​​​1996 Helms-Burton law that ​​​​​​​allows U.S. nationals to sue in their country's courts entities and indivduals who have invested in properties nationalized by the Cuban government.

"60 years ago, in Cuba, the Agrarian Reform Law was signed and brought about a rapid and radical change in the land ownership and the exploitative regime, for the good of so many Cubans. Congratulations to all those who, with their noble effort, work the land. Farmers' day, 60 years and more, Cuban guajiro."

One of the Helms-Burton Law main targets is precisely land ownership in Cuba, which was mostly controlled by U.S. firms before January 1, 1959.

According to a study carried out by the Catholic University Group in the mid-1950s, over 46 percent of the Cuban arable land was owned by only 1.5 of the landowners.​​​​​​​ Large and medium-sized proprietors, who barely constituted 9.4 percent of the landowner populations, controled 73 percent of Cuba's territory.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers received slave wages and lived in bohios, shacks on site that lacked ​​​​​​​decent sanitary services, potable water or electricity.

The Cuban agricultural worker's situation was worsened due to their illiteracy, extreme poverty, lack of medical attention, and food deficit.​​​​​​​ But all this began to change with the distribution of land among the poorest.

"Take your property title, now you own the land," Fidel Castro told Felix Perez, a 100-year old agricultural worker who clearly remembers the late president telling him, "land is yours until you die."

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