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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 September 2006, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
The Cuban farm revolution 'forgot'
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

The redistribution of land following the Cuban revolution 47 years ago was the most complete in all of Latin America - and something which Fidel Castro has often said he is most proud of. But there are exceptions as our Cuba correspondent Stephen Gibbs found when he visited the farm which the revolution apparently forgot.

Animals on Maria Antonia's farm. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.
The largest private farm is hailed as a centre of excellence in Cuba. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.
"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 US hands before the revolution - those days are long gone.

Agrarian reform, after all, was one of the rallying cries of Fidel Castro's rebel army.

Months after he was swept to power, hundreds of large estates were shared out among those that worked on them.

Mr Castro's own parents' farm was the first to be confiscated.

A photograph exists 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.

Country spirit

The Alcazar farm 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 around an hour along a potholed road through gentle hills.

Eventually you arrive at the impressive entrance gates of the farm.

Maria Antonia. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.
Her instinct is not to speak to journalists but, as with many people in their late 70s, age had worn away her inhibitions
We were greeted by a man who seemed to perform the role of a butler, only in classic Cuban cowboy hat.

He sat us down in the shady veranda of the main house and said the owner would be with us shortly.

You can tell when Maria Antonia is approaching. Her pack of dogs precedes her.

They are not the usual Cuban mongrels, but golden Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

"Lion-hunters" the landowner informed me, as I patted one on the back.

She is 79 years old, but looks a lot younger.

A squat, grey-haired woman, she has an easy smile and a no-nonsense manner.

Like many Cubans, her instinct is not to speak to journalists but, as with many people in their late 70s, age had worn away her inhibitions.

"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. "It's all weeds because no one feels it is theirs."

Ice cold beers were produced, at 1000 in the morning.

This, I thought, could be an interesting day in the last communist country in the western hemisphere.

Well connected

Maria Antonia's family once owned two large estates: el Alcazar, and another even larger one, around 100km (62 miles) to the north.

The other property was next door to the farm owned by Fidel Castro's father.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro says that the worst of his health crisis is behind him
She knew Fidel well as a child and remembers him as both popular and extraordinarily determined.

I asked her how she might characterise her own background.

"Upper class," she replied, in English without hesitation.

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 Raul 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 acquired by the revolutionary government, the second was spared.

The reason given at the time was the need to preserve some centres of agricultural excellence, in this case one where champion bulls were bred.

Prize-winning stock

Inside the main house on the farm there is a trophy room next to a slightly incongruous knight's suit of armour - apparently from the 13th Century. On the wall there are lines of plates engraved with the names of prize winning bulls.

Most years of the 1950s are represented.

Men on horseback at Maria Antonia's farm. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.
The model farm could be a glimpse into Cuba's future. Photo by Sven Creutzmann.
In 1959, when the Cuban revolution succeeded, the series ends.

Maria Antonia says that she still wins prizes at agricultural shows.

It seems the organisers no longer hand out trophies.

She suggested I take a walk to see a barn next to the house. It is full of huge bulls, some weighing over two tons.

Down the road is a stable with immaculate, pedigree horses.

They canter out onto land that stretches to a distant blue mountain range.

'Best in the world'

Back in Havana, I mentioned to a visiting American cattle rancher that I had been to see the Alcazar farm.

He knew the estate.

"It's the best of its kind in the world," said John Park Wright IV, whose family owned farms in Cuba before the revolution.

He added 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 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.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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