Cuba: Irma Castillo Vargas: "My Cooperative is everything to me"

Oxfam's work with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) includes a pilot to implement ANAP’s gender strategy in five of Cuba's provinces. The project is supported by the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA) and Oxfam Canada. This interview is from the book: “Voices and Faces of 50 Cuban Women Farmers” (“Voces y Rostros de 50 Campesinas Cubanas”) by Yohanka Valdes Jimenez and Yuliet Cruz Martinez (Caminos 2009), which was published as part of the project.

Irma Castillo Vargas was born in La Coaba, Guantanamo, in the eastern-most province of Cuba. But love of Candonquita and the years dedicated to working the land, she says, made her a Santiago native, a follower of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), and very revolutionary.

"One day my husband, who had gone to work in Havana, died suddenly. I was left alone with four young children. I remember that they called for me to go to the capital with my children to deal with the pension process, but I didn’t have the money for the journey. So I decided to work in the production area of mixed crops, picking fruit, cleaning and doing odd jobs. I was here for five years when my mother decided to incorporate the family land in the cooperative and join the cooperative.

"I’m called Revolution. For me the revolution propels me, because I live for her. I am a revolutionary of the purest kind, of heart, of soul, of life. The revolution has helped me not to fail in this life.

"Despite poverty, I was able to find work, raise my children and put them through school. I had a television, a washing machine, a fan. My house was a whole floor, a large house with three bedrooms."

And the cooperative? What is that for you?

"There is no dream of anything bigger for me than the Cooperative “May 17”. Here I started as a day-laborer, and here I have lived the most important moments of my life. I worked 25 years and nine months as a cooperative member before I retired.

"Thanks to my strength and sacrifice, I achieved good results, received various incentives, among them the first television in the whole cooperative. I was the boss of the work brigade, the farm and much later the building site. For 8 years I directed fifty-year old men, with the help of two women: the cook and the household manager. The bosses were the women. I was very good: we turned over 54 metric tons of sugarcane per hectare."

At present, Irma is part of a team that coordinates the ANAP Gender Project. She works with volunteer workers and shares her experience with young people.

What do you think of women leaders?

"When a woman works and leads, she feels better, stronger. She is capable of addressing the problems with more speed, honor and hope."


Read more about Oxfam's work with the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP).