CUBA: Inklings of Economic Reform
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Mar 20 (IPS) – Farmers in Cuba can now buy their own supplies —
a departure from a decades-old system clogged with red tape in which the
state assigned them inputs, and an important first step towards
bolstering food production, say experts.
Academic sources consulted by IPS see the measure as more far-reaching
than a lifting of the restrictions that keep Cubans from purchasing
computers, microwave ovens and other electrical appliances, a move that
is apparently imminent but has not yet been confirmed by the government.
"The free sale of farm supplies implies a structural change in the
countryside," said one expert, who noted that the new procedure has
already been put in practice in some towns and that stores are being
opened for the purpose around the country.
Initially, the farmers will buy their tools, irrigation equipment,
fertiliser, fencing, work clothing like boots and other supplies in the
government's hard currency or former dollar stores, where they can only
pay in "convertible pesos", known as CUCs or "chavitos".
Nevertheless, the measure is a first step away from "the concept of
centralised distribution of supplies, and links farmers more directly to
the production levels that they achieve," said the expert, who asked to
In the government exchange bureaus, one CUC is traded for 25 Cuban pesos
or 1.25 U.S. dollars.
"I can now only buy what I am assigned by the Cooperative (of Credit and
Services), which does not always receive all of the supplies that we
need. But in these stores that are going to open, we're supposed to be
able to directly look for what we need, without worrying about red
tape," said a farmer who sells his produce in a Havana farmers market.
Rubén Torres, a small farmer from Villa Clara, 268 km from the capital,
told IPS by phone that he had not yet heard about the new measure,
although Agriculture Ministry officials in that province had said that
they would eliminate the bureaucratic mechanisms standing in the way of
"The fields can't wait till tomorrow when an input is needed," said
Torres. "That's why it is important to be able to obtain supplies
without being blocked by red tape."
The expert said he knew the measure would be expanded throughout the
"This measure and others will be put into practice gradually and
discreetly, without public announcements or coverage in the local
press," he said. "Agriculture is one of the sectors in most dire need of
change, which is the only way to boost food production."
According to official figures, Cuba spends one billion dollars a year on
imports of basic food items, which are sold to the public at subsidised
prices by means of the "ration book" system that guarantees all Cubans
access to a basket of staple food products at extremely low cost.
As interim president, Raúl Castro stated in a now famous July 2007
speech that it was absolutely essential to strengthen agricultural
productivity in Cuba and give farmers incentives to boost the low
production rates, and he said that all of the necessary changes would
have to be introduced to achieve those goals.
When he permanently succeeded his ailing brother Fidel on Feb. 24,
Castro announced that some bans and legal restrictions that "do more
harm than good" would begin to be eliminated "in the next few weeks."
His words prompted a flurry of speculation about the changes that might
be adopted to alleviate the difficulties plaguing Cubans in their daily
In response to questions, the secretary of culture in the ruling
Communist Party's Central Committee, Eliadas Acosta, admitted Wednesday
to journalists that the government is studying a number of measures
"that the people expect and need," although he did not specify what they
"They are being analysed and will be put into effect as soon as
possible," said Acosta.
An employee at a state-run CIMEX store confirmed to IPS that at an
as-yet unspecified date, computers and a number of other electronic
appliances currently off-limits to Cubans would begin to be sold freely.
"We know it's coming, but we don't know when, maybe in a few months,"
said the employee, who preferred not to be named.
A memorandum circulating among the foreign press and people with access
to email in Cuba states that "based on the improved availability of
electricity," the government "has approved the sale of some equipment
that was prohibited."
The dismantling of the restrictions will take place in three stages,
from now to 2010, adds the document, described by the foreign press as
an internal government document.
In the first stage, sales will be permitted of computers, 19-24 inch TV
sets, VCRs, pressure cookers, microwave ovens, electric bicycles and car
According to the memo, the ban will first be lifted in the capital, in
three CIMEX shops, where goods are sold in CUCs.
CUCs are basically available to Cubans who receive remittances from
relatives abroad or who work in tourist-related areas or for foreign
companies operating in Cuba in joint ventures with the Cuban state.
Earlier this year, Cuba's dairy farmers began to receive two cents of a
CUC per litre of milk sold to the state, to go towards purchases of
"Facilitating access by farmers to other goods and services would also
be recommendable," said the expert who talked to IPS.
Many believe that sales of electronic and home appliances will have a
more psychological than practical impact.
"I don't have 'chavitos', to be able to buy things like that, but I'm
glad to know that I could do so someday," said university student
Another academic pointed to different aspects of the measure. "We will
see a more diverse choice of products, shifts in spending by Cuban
families, new work incentives, a greater inflow of revenues into the
state coffers through increased sales, and, above all, more options for
Cubans," Juan Triana, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on the
Cuban Economy, told IPS. (END/2008)