In China it's the year of the ox — and it could be for Cuba, too.
President Raul Castro is promoting the beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.
He recently suggested expanding a pilot program that gives private farmers fallow government land to cultivate — but without the use of gas-guzzling machinery.
"For this program we should forget about tractors and fuel, even if we had enough. The idea is to work basically with oxen," Castro told parliament Aug. 1. "An increasing number of growers have been doing exactly this with excellent results."
Cuba's economy was devastated by three hurricanes last summer, and the global recession has left the government short on cash to cover debts. As a result, it has slashed spending and cut domestic production and foreign imports, causing shortages of such basics as cooking oil, ground beef and toilet paper.
A campaign to conserve crude
Though the island gets nearly 100,000 free barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, it also has begun a campaign to conserve crude.
The agricultural ministry in late June proposed increasing the use of oxen to save fuel, as Cubans have seen a summer of factories closing and air conditioners at government offices and businesses shutting off to save oil. The ministry said it had more than 265,000 oxen "capable of matching, and in some cases overtaking, machines in labor load and planting."
In the farming initiative that began last year, about 82,000 applicants have received more than 1.7 million acres so far — or 40 percent of the government's formerly idle land. The program seems to have slightly increased production of potatoes and tomatoes in season, but the government has provided no official figures.
Shortages in Cuba are not new. And neither are oxen.
Thousands of Cuban farmers have relied on the beasts in the half century since Fidel and Raul Castro and their rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista.
"The ox means so much to us. Without oxen, farming is not farming," said Omar Andalio, 37, as he carefully coaxed a pair of government-owned beasts through a sugarcane field last week.
For reasons no one can remember, the plumper one is called "Caramel," even though he's white, and his caramel-hued field-mate is "Lightweight" — never mind that he's nearly 1,000 pounds.
Andalio is one of 300 employees who grow cane, low-quality tobacco, sweet potatoes and bananas in San Diego, 95 miles (150 kilometers) west of Havana, with stunning views of limestone mountains in the distance.
‘Work with tractors hasn't stopped’
The cooperative has 24 oxen and eight tractors — with two of the machines clawing through terrain cooked by a recent drought. Each tractor can do the work of five teams of oxen, Andalio said.
"Work with tractors hasn't stopped, but it will only go as far as the economy allows," he added.
Juan Alvarez, a member of a state flower cooperative that supplies nearby funeral homes, tugged at two oxen with names translating to "Foreman" and "Spoiled Brat." A pair called "Evil Eye" and "Coal-Stoker" stood in the shade nearby, where a sea green-and-red highway billboard read: "Everything for the Revolution. Summer 2009."
"We use tractors when there are tractors, but there almost never are," said Alvarez, 59.
Zenaida Leon, acting head of the 10-employee flower cooperative, said the issue is not "oxen 'yes,' tractors 'no.'"
"I am thankful for the revolution," the 52-year-old said. "But we don't get boots, tools, irrigation that works."