Raul Castro stirs hopes for Cuba farmers
Tue Sep 18, 2007 8:10pm EDT
By Marc Frank
JARUCO, Cuba (Reuters) – Down on the ranch, the talk among the cattle
hands is that help is on its way.
And it could not come sooner for Cuba's state-owned agriculture, where
production has slumped for years and weeds are taking over unused fields.
Roasting a pig over a fire amid the dust and flies, ranch manager Manolo
sips rum and gazes out over the pastures of the farming cooperative
where he has worked for a decade.
"A year ago I sold 22 head of cattle to the state for 18,000 pesos. This
year the same number brought more than 60,000," he said. That is the
equivalent of $2,700, up from $810 last year.
"Things are moving in the right direction. We have to make unused land
produce and we need more resources for that," said Manolo, who asked
that his last name not be used because of government rules about talking
to foreign journalists.
Similar upbeat talk can be heard across Cuba's countryside, spurred by
acting president Raul Castro, who has been running the government since
his brother, ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, fell ill more than a year
Raul Castro has made agriculture a top priority, stressing the need to
produce more food in a country that relies on imports to feed its 11
million people, even from the United States, its ideological foe since
Cuba's 1959 revolution.
The younger Castro has doubled and tripled what the state pays for
cattle, milk and other farm products, and cut red-tape that often left
farmers unpaid and crops to rot.
In a key speech on July 26 in the central agricultural province of
Camaguey, Raul Castro called for "structural and conceptual changes" in
the state-dominated agricultural sector to reverse a decline in output
and reduce prices.
"We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is
there to be tilled … we must offer these producers adequate incentives
for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat," he said.
Raul's aides are hard at work on a plan with a year-end deadline,
Communist party sources report.
THE WITCH'S WEED
The workers at Manolo's ranch climb aboard a beat-up 1948 Chevrolet
truck to tour their cooperative, called a Basic Unit of Production,
where they own everything but the land, which is leased to them by the
state free of charge.
Cattle and sheep graze over the low-lying hills, but almost half the
land is covered by a prickly brush called "marabu" and a waste-high weed
that farmers call the "witch's weed" because it quickly renders pasture
"We need a bulldozer or at least machetes to cut this down, then
herbicide to kill the roots to stop it reappearing," said a ranch hand
as the truck bounced along a dirt road. "Not even goats can eat the stuff."
Cuba is emerging from a severe economic crisis triggered by the 1991
collapse of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, and the loss of
massive subsidies that resulted in shortages of food, fuel,
transportation and capital.
Agricultural inputs, such as seed, fertilizers, pesticides and farm
equipment, were cut by 80 percent.
Cuba's inefficient farm production almost ground to a halt, land fell
into disuse and the dreaded "marabu" spread.
The weekly economy newspaper Opciones recently reported that "marabu and
other weeds have become a plague in Cuba" that covers one third of the
3.6 million hectares (9 million acres) of arable land.
The closure of half Cuba's sugar mills in 2003 added sugar cane
plantations to the vast tracts of unused land and deepened the crisis in
agriculture by throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.
THE STATE AS LANDOWNER
Cuba has gradually pulled out of its economic crunch with financial help
from Venezuela and China, and high prices for its top export commodity,
nickel. This has allowed the state to assign resources to upgrade
Many Cuban farmers, however, believe that more incentive is needed to
turn Cuban agriculture around. Some experts argue that the state should
hand land over to the farmers and farming cooperatives if it wants to
Most of the land in Cuba is owned by the state, making it perhaps the
largest unproductive landowner in Latin America.
"Here there is land and enough men to produce all the food the country
needs," said farmer Arsenio Perez in a telephone interview from eastern
Santiago de Cuba province.
"The only thing you need now is to bring them together in the best way
and you'll see how the land provides all that's missing," he said.
After Castro's 1959 revolution, large landowners were stripped of their
property (his father's estate was the first to be confiscated). Hundreds
of thousands of private holdings of up to 6.5 hectares were allowed,
including the growers of the tobacco leaves for Cuba's famous
But, unlike other socialist countries, the state kept most of the land
"Small farmers own just 15 percent of the land," said sociologist
Aurelio Alonso in a discussion on property in the magazine Temas. "But
they produce 60 percent of what we eat."