Monday, January 07, 2008

Cuban farmers: Let the land be ours

Miami Herald
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Posted on Mon, Jan. 07, 2008
Cuban farmers: Let the land be ours
SANTIAGO de CUBA, Cuba -- Cuban farmers have a suggestion for how the government can put millions of acres of fallow land to work and put more food on everyone's table.

Give state-owned lands to them, and allow a bit of capitalism.

''We are all hoping for some change -- a new system that allows you to have a better life and do some business,'' said Elena, a small farmer from the Santiago de Cuba area. ``Here, you are not even the boss of what's yours.''

Interim president Raúl Castro has made it clear as he grapples with the illness of his brother Fidel that one of the chief troubles the country faces is how to put more food on the dinner table without compromising the 49-year-old revolution's socialist doctrine.

He has declared war on inefficient farming, doubled and tripled some of the prices that the government pays to farmers, and complained that millions of acres are now idle. Offials have said they may even allow in more foreign investments in the food sector.

The result: The government claimed late last month that the agricultural economy had grown by a whopping 24 percent in 2007 -- after three years of steady drops.

But food prices remain high: One pound of tomatoes can cost a day's wage in a country where the average weekly salary is $3.25. Cuba is spending $1.6 billion annually on food imports, including $350 million last year from the United States alone.

While many farmers agree the Raúl Castro government is taking new interest in boosting production, they say that only giving land to private farmers and allowing a little more capitalism in their communist state will overcome the many obstacles in Cuba's largely government-ruled and hugely inefficient agricultural sector.

''They claim they are reviving agriculture,'' said Luis, a toothless farmer from central Cuba who turned to food crops after retiring as a cowhand. ``Reviving what? Look at the conditions I live in. Sometimes I can't sell at all, because if I did, I wouldn't have anything to eat.''

He looked at his property, a squalid collection of shacks with a dilapitated outhouse, where a phone book served as toilet paper.

Cuba's government owns 85 percent of the arable land and controls all supplies like seeds, herbicides, feed and fuel. Private farmers who own the other 15 percent produce 60 percent of the island's food, the government has acknowledged.

Experts estimate there are up to 225,000 private farmers in Cuba, as well as another 350,000 farmers working on cooperatives that own their own land, within a system that has long been dominated by Soviet-style, state-owned collective farms.

The government makes farmers sell a large quota of their products at cheap prices to the government, which then doles them out to Cubans as part of their monthly ration cards. Only after the farmers have met their government quotas can they sell the rest at food markets, where prices are set by supply and demand.

Under Raúl Castro, some farmers have begun to receive plots of neglected state land in the hopes they can turn productivity around, some growers said. It's an effort that began in the 1990s, and has apparently been revived as part of Castro's battle against marabú, the thorny bush that threatens much of the arable land.

''All you see around here is marabú,'' said Nelson, a farmer in central Ciego de Avila. ``The state has all this land, and they're doing nothing with it. They are going to start giving it to the people. We've been struggling with that for years, and it's just now that they are doing something about it.''

Raúl Castro says a lack of land is not the problem.

''It seems to me that there is plenty of land,'' Raúl Castro said in a July speech. ``As I drove in here I could see that everything around is green and pretty, but what drew my attention the most, what I found prettier, was the marabú growing along the road.''

The Cuban government estimates that at least a third of its arable land is covered in marabú, sometimes called ''witch's weed,'' because it's so hard to fight. Some three million acres of farm land is now covered by it, according to the government.

''We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled,'' Raúl Castro said. ``We must offer these producers adequate incentives for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat.''

But farmers argue there are more problems: Prices the government pays for their crops barely allow them to cover their costs. Profits come only from what they can sell at the far more lucrative farmer's markets.

Supplies controlled by the government like animal feed and fertilizer are scarce and often expensive. If the government wants to increase food production, it needs to provide growers with machinery, fuel, and other necessities, farmers said.

''The problem is that the state pays the farmer very little and sells to the public very high,'' said Pablo, a farmer in central Cuba. ``I would be better off if I could sell directly to the public, because I get more that way. They say they are going to do things to stimulate production, but more or less they don't do anything.''

Orlando Lugo, head of the National Small Growers Association, told Bohemia magazine there were places last year that didn't plant potatoes, because farmers did not have the materials needed to prepare the soil.

With the proper resources, growers in Havana could double or triple output, he added..

''We need more resources,'' Lugo said. ``We lack tractors, and there's barely enough machinery and a shortage of fuel.''

When agriculture first tanked in the mid-90s after the loss of Soviet subsidies, Cuba broke up state farms and put them in the hands of private cooperatives while keeping ownership of the land. University of Florida agricultural economist William A. Messina Jr. said the move was a step in the right direction, but farmers still face too many restrictions.

''I think Cuban agriculture is trudging along,'' Messina said. ``There's a tremendous amount of potential, lots of good lands . . . [But] the whole administrative structure governing food sales and distribution has strained the system.''

Carmelo, a Ciego de Avila farmer who describes himself as a loyal member of the Communist Party, said all that is beginning to change because the government is listening to farmers' ideas.

''Since Raúl took over, there's been a lot of changes and help,'' he said. ``Here is the way I see it: The ... law says the land belongs to who works it. So fine. Let the land be ours and let the price be ours to set. We need a little capitalism -- adapted to socialism.''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of the people quoted, because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.

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