Cuba's agricultural decline sparks major reform
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, April 3 (Reuters) – Communist Cuba's soaring food imports and a
decline in its cash crops of sugar, tobacco, coffee and citrus have led
new President Raul Castro to launch what is developing into a sweeping
reform of agriculture.
Decision-making, from land use to resource allocation, has moved from
the national to local level, stores are opening where farmers can buy
some supplies for the first time in decades and increasingly they can
sell their produce directly to local consumers and state institutions
like schools and hospitals.
For years, the country has leased plots of land to individuals
interested in coffee and tobacco farming with poor results.
Now, at the same time that restrictions on the sale of computers, cell
phones and hotel rooms are lifted, more land is being granted to the
proven 250,000 existing private farmers and 1,100 cooperatives that
produce more than half the country's food on 20 percent of the tilled land.
The reforms, rolled out since late February when Raul Castro succeeded
his ailing brother Fidel Castro to become Cuba's first new leader in 50
years, are coming none too soon, local experts said.
Coffee output is down more than 50 percent compared with 2001 and
tobacco is expected to decline a bit after stagnating at around 40,000
tonnes for years.
Sugar output has come in at just over a million tonnes a year since
2004, compared with 8 million in 1991, and last year citrus output
registered half of the nearly million tonnes of 2001.
The country now imports around 80 percent of its basic food stuffs such
as rice, powdered milk, beans and wheat rationed to the population.
"We have been calling for these changes for many years and expect more
will be needed in the future," a local economist said, asking his name
not be used.
More than 1,000 cooperatives working state lands since huge farms were
broken down in the early 1990s are benefiting from the changes as well,
including the doubling and even tripling of state prices for their goods.
Around 50 percent of the state cooperatives operate at a loss and while
they cover far more land than the private sector, they produce far less.
Cuba's deputy agriculture minister, Alcides Lopez, announced last month
that state cooperatives would be given more credit and resources and
more latitude in deciding what to produce and where to sell their output.
"It is the opportunity we have been waiting for, local and more direct
attention from the authorities and resources so we can work," farmer
Diogenes Fernandez said in a telephone interview from the eastern
province of Santiago de Cuba.
"Up to now our hands have been tied, there was nothing to work with,
little motivation. Now everything is changing," Fernandez, a member of a
state cooperative, said.
Meanwhile, both private and public sugar cooperatives were told last
month that if they can reach yields of 70 tonnes per 2.5 acres (one
hectare) or more, they can produce whatever they want on extra land they
now have or are granted in the future, official media reported.
"Conceptually, decentralizing decision-making and resource allocation
from the national to local level is a step in the right direction,"
international agriculture and sugar industry analyst G.B. Hagelberg said.
"Combined with decentralization, if the restructuring in fact increases
material support for the non-state farm sector, output and efficiency
are likely to rise," he said.
But Hagelberg, a long-time critic of Cuba's state-dominated agriculture,
cautioned that only time would tell if real competition and markets
would develop and the reforms amount to more than "rearranging the deck
chairs on the Titanic." (Editing by Tom Brown and Kieran Murray) (For
special coverage from Reuters on the changes in Cuba, see: