Cuba expected to turn over new leaf in farming
Javier Galeano / Associated Press
The chrome shines on one of the vehicles on a Havana avenue the day
after Fidel Castro announced his intention to retire. For Castro's
"legacy to survive, they need to have a working economy in Cuba," one
Reforms are also seen as likely in the oil industry and monetary system
in the post-Castro era.
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 21, 2008
MIAMI — Without Fidel Castro as president, Cuba is more likely to
launch reforms to boost food production, create oil industry jobs and
put more pesos in citizens' pockets, analysts said Wednesday.
Some changes, probably starting with efforts to help farmers, are likely
to occur during the next year, some analysts said.
Raul Castro, the president's 76-year-old brother and potential
successor, and other Cuban leaders for months have indicated that
farmers may receive legal rights to their land and guaranteed market
prices for their produce.
Those changes and other economic improvements could happen more quickly
following Fidel Castro's announcement Tuesday that he would step down as
head of state after nearly half a century running the island nation,
"I don't know that Cubans would be expecting something in the next two
weeks. But I do think Raul has raised expectations to a degree that
they're expecting something in the course of this year," said Phil
Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute think tank near Washington.
With food production pitifully low for a country with fertile land and a
year-round growing climate, farmers need more land and more autonomy in
tilling it to boost output. Cuba imports at least 70% of its food,
including a record $437-million worth from the United States last year.
Many Cuban farms have antiquated cultivation equipment. Donkeys and oxen
are as visible in rural areas as tractors and combines.
Especially in the fields of agriculture and foreign investment, reform
can and should be embraced swiftly, said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-born
lawyer and Bay of Pigs veteran who has spent the last 15 years working
to repair relations between Cubans in the U.S. and those in Cuba.
"They haven't talked as much about it, but I think they may also reverse
the elimination of self-employment and allow more paladares [private
restaurants] and other small business," Zamora said.
Fidel Castro, 81, has long opposed anything that smacks of private
enterprise or disproportionately enriches one group of Cubans. But his
brother and lifelong No. 2, who began leading the country when Fidel
fell ill and temporarily ceded power to him 19 months ago, has been
speaking openly about the need to stimulate agricultural output by
turning land back to those who want to work it and boost their living
standards by the sweat of their brows.
The elder Castro has been disparaging much of the talk of open produce
markets and ethanol production from sugar cane. But in one of his
periodic "reflections" on life, he vowed to be careful and conciliatory
in expressing his opinions, leading analysts to conclude that he will
try not to micromanage his successors.
Cuba's leaders are considered protective of Castro's legacy, which
includes providing free healthcare and education, even as critics point
to constraints on political dissent and personal freedoms.
"But for that legacy to survive, they need to have a working economy in
Cuba — not for the sake of the global economy, but for the people of
Cuba," said Zamora, who travels to the island nation every few months to
analyze investment opportunities for clients across Latin America.
Jorge Piñon, an energy analyst with the University of Miami's Center for
Hemispheric Policy and a retired oil industry executive, agreed that
agriculture is the most likely first reform target. The country must
also address its monetary system, which has created a class divide
between those Cubans with access to U.S. dollars and those without, he said.
Opportunities to draw more investment in oil exploration and nickel
mining have also emerged, Piñon said. Those industries, he said, could
provide more lucrative employment to Cubans than the state-run factories
and enterprises currently paying workers less than $20 a month.
Castro vacillated over the decades in his insistence that capitalism be
fully exorcised from his country, says Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a
Cuban-born University of Central Florida history professor writing a
book about Castro's revolution.
Necessity forced him to allow some private shops and services to emerge
in the early 1990s, as well as to allow Cubans abroad to send dollar
remittances to family on the island, Martinez-Fernandez said.
"If we want to maintain the gains of the revolution, the best way is to
have a gradual transition, one that is peaceful and one that is
controlled from the top and controlled by Cubans," he said.
An opportunity now exists for Cuba's leaders to step back and rethink
their development course and how best to protect the gains of the
revolution, added Martinez-Fernandez.
"We have two very stubborn world leaders who have been intransigent with
each other for a long time: George W. Bush and Fidel Castro. But in a
few months neither of them will be in power," said the professor. "The
moment is very auspicious."
Peters said the new Cuban president is likely to roll out the changes
step by step, to avoid the destabilizing swings in the economy that
radical change brought in Eastern Europe. A successor to Fidel Castro is
expected to be named Sunday when the National Assembly convenes to
propose a new executive body, the 31-member Council of State.
Castro's potential successors seem more comfortable with the prospect of
some Cubans being able to increase their incomes through self-employment
than he was, Peters said.
Vice President Carlos Lage and Raul Castro, both considered in line for
the presidency, teamed up in the 1990s with foreign investors to develop
hotels, airlines and tour companies that now cater to more than 2
million visitors a year.
Others see Fidel Castro's resignation as the removal of an impediment to
the kind of economic transformation necessary to address the basic needs
of Cuba's more than 11 million people.
"It's not a radical change in the leadership of the country, nor in the
policies of the country. But it's an important crack in the door," said
Alan Becker, a lawyer who deals with property rights, trade and
international business. "The successors to Fidel will want to make it
their own, just as shifts occurred in China which took some time to
morph into an almost state capitalism."