Cuban farmers seen as vanguard of wider economic change
By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: April 3 2008 03:00 | Last updated: April 3 2008 03:00
The secretary in La Lisa district of Havana was in no mood to hear about
President Raúl Castro's recent lifting of bans on going to tourist
hotels and on the sale of computers, microwaves, mobile phones and other
electronic consumer goods.
She could not have cared less that farmers were buying some of their own
supplies for the first time in decades, that the agriculture ministry
was being decentralised and more land grants issued. A police sweep had
just closed down the clandestine satellite networks in her neighbourhood
after years of service and, adding insult to injury, she had been told
that Yahoo and Google e-mail and messaging had been declared off-limits
by the government.
"I don't want to hear it. Now what am I supposed to do after working all
week? Watch political programming or surf the government intranet?" the
"People deserve to unwind, enjoy themselves, do what they want on the
weekend," she fumed. "I watch soap operas from Mexico and Brazil, not
Miami news," which the government sees as dominated by enemies in
Florida's Cuban exile community.
Five weeks into the presidency of Raúl Castro, the government's first
moves have shown latitude on economic issues but no desire to loosen the
state's control in other areas.
Mr Castro, 76, has promised to meet Cubans' material and spiritual needs
with the endorsement of Fidel Castro, who has never fully recovered from
surgery in 2006 but remains active writing a political column for state
media and consulting behind the scenes.
But although mobile telephones and computers – which are too costly for
most Cubans to buy – have hit the headlines, the government's
agricultural reforms may be more significant.
A local economist said decentralisation and an acceptance of more
individual initiative marked the start of changes that could spread to
the rest of the economy.
"The ground is shifting, a crack has appeared on the wall and it is
bound to get bigger and bigger," he said, asking for his name not to be
Just under a third of Cuba's agricultural land is worked by 250,000
private family farmers and 1,100 private co-operatives, while a further
third is held by state co-operatives and the remainder lies fallow.
The private farmers will in future be overseen by the mammoth
agriculture ministry on the same terms as their state counterparts,
rather than by a subordinate department, as has hitherto been the case.
Farmers believe the reformed ministry will be more attuned to their needs.
"I feel like I'm going to a party. It seems to me that starting now many
problems will be taken care of and we can work and receive the income we
deserve," Alfredo Rodrí-guez, a small farmer, said in a telephone
interview from central Camagüey province.
The agriculture ministry is also being decentralised. Municipal-level
ministry offices are taking over land- use planning, resource allocation
and sales from Havana and will now be expected to solve most problems
without looking to a higher authority, Communist party sources said.
"They are reorganising and strengthening at the local level so we can
farm, instead of running round all day trying to solve our problems,"
Diego Hernandez, a family farmer, said.
Farmers said local control was a key issue that they raised last year in
meetings with officials as part of a nationwide discussion of the
country's ills launched by Raúl Castro. The state's monopoly on supplies
and distribution was also an important topic in the discussions.
Most experts outside the country are certain that socialist Cuba,
without Fidel Castro at the helm, must move towards a Chinese or
Vietnamese-style model of communism to survive.
But that view is hotly contested by local officials. The successes and
failures of other socialist countries "should enrich our efforts, but
the building of socialism in Cuba is only possible as a result of our
own experience", Carlos Lage, a vice- president and the executive
secretary of Cuba's cabinet of ministers, told state managers in a
speech last year.