Cuba Leaders Counting on Private Farmers
Government hopes alternative to state-run farms can boost economy.
By David Adams
St. Petersburg Times
Published: Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 10:02 p.m.
AGUAS CLARAS, Cuba | Cuba's leaders are counting on Alberto Romero's
eight cows to help turn around the island's struggling socialist economy.
Private farmers like Romero, who belongs to a 219-member cooperative
near the eastern city of Holguin, were overshadowed for years by Cuba's
emphasis on large state farms. But the government recently began handing
out idle state land to private farmers across the island in an effort to
boost food production.
"The government has put its faith in us, and we will show what we are
capable of," said Romero, whose 20-acre plot has been in his family for
Cuba is hoping that private farmers can literally plow the island out of
a huge $11 billion trade deficit this year caused by rising food import
costs and falling exports. The policy marks a major shift away from
inefficient state farms that once occupied the lion's share of the
island's agricultural land.
"The land is there! Here are the Cubans. Let's see if we work or not, if
we produce or not!" exclaimed President Raul Castro last month at a
rally in Holguin.
Castro has made raising food production a national security priority,
noting that the area of cultivated land fell 33 percent from 1997 to
2008. He told the crowd in Holguin that Cuba's poor agricultural output
could not be blamed on the U.S. economic embargo alone.
"It's not a question of shouting, 'Homeland or death, down with
imperialism, the embargo hurts us.' The land is there, waiting for our
Despite being an agricultural nation with plentiful sun, soil and rain,
Cuba produces barely 30 percent of the food it needs because of an acute
lack of resources and the inefficiency of its state farm sector. About
250,000 small family farms and 1,100 cooperatives till only about
one-quarter of the land, yet still manage to outperform the state farms,
producing almost 60 percent of crops and livestock, according to
"The last 50 years have shown that private farmers are more socialist
than the state. State farms are antisocialist. The only thing they
socialized is loss-making," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former state
economic adviser who is now a vocal critic of the government.
Since the redistribution of farmland began last year, Cuba says 110,000
people have submitted applications and about 80 percent have been
granted, totaling 1.7 million acres. But the new program has been slow
to get going. Three devastating hurricanes last year wiped out vast
swaths of productive farmland.
Though milk production has risen significantly, overall agricultural
production fell by 7.3 percent in the first quarter of 2009, and meat
production fell by 14.7 percent.
TOO MUCH BUREAUCRACY
While it may be too early to judge the results of the program, analysts
say it is running into familiar problems.
"There is too much control and bureaucracy that hinders everything,"
Espinosa Chepe said. "It's impregnated with a 50-year-old operating
method that is built on taking orders and is not used to decentralization.
"There need to be more incentives," he said.
Private farmers and cooperatives manage their own land but must sell
part of their produce to the state at government prices, which are
generally half the market value. Private farmers also lack direct access
to equipment and tools, as well as fertilizer and pesticides, all
controlled by the state.
Opening the farm sector to more foreign capital would help Cuba acquire
new technology and markets, analysts say. But Cuba complains that the
U.S. embargo limits its access to foreign capital, as well as cheap
pesticides and heavy farm equipment.
'A BIT FORGOTTEN'
Javier Perez, 40, a plantain grower near Guanabacoa, welcomes the
state's rekindled interest in private farmers.
"We were a bit forgotten about in the past," he said.
He earns good money selling to farmers' markets in Havana after he meets
his government quota. In return, the state provides him with subsidized
fertilizer and irrigation equipment. The adjacent land he recently
obtained from the state will help him raise his production by 25 percent
more. Less regulation would be better, he agrees.
"The more independent you are, the more you push yourself," he said.
"Why work harder if you don't get any benefit?"
Cuba's state-run newspaper Granma recently added its weighty voice to
the farm debate, highlighting the success of a 100-acre cooperative farm
in Bejucal, about 25 miles south of Havana.
"If the worker is not content in his job and you don't pay him for his
results, you don't achieve anything," cooperative president Lazaro
Hernandez told the paper, saying he paid his 20 employees 780 pesos per
month ($32.50), more than twice the average national wage. Their wages,
and share of produce, increase if they exceed production targets.
"If the salary is fixed, the worker will just show up and do his day's
work, but he won't be interested in getting the most out of it. If he
has a percentage, it all changes," he said.
Such quasi-free-market language wasn't heard much in Cuba until
recently. But Raul Castro has shown a pragmatic streak on economic
matters, trying to improve state efficiency. In July 2008, he surprised
many by advocating a shift away from the orthodox socialist concept of
equal pay, arguing that those who were more productive should be paid more.
This story appeared in print on page A2
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