Friday, May 2, 2008

Cuba announces farm overhaul on May Day

By WILL WEISSERT – 17 hours ago

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba announced a major shake-up of its troubled farm sector on May Day, shifting control of the island's farms from officials at the Agriculture Ministry to more than 150 local councils.

The move is part of an effort to increase food production and reduce Cuba's dependance on imports. It came as hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched Thursday in a May Day parade that was shorter than usual, reflecting the businesslike style of new President Raul Castro.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma said 169 new agricultural coordinating councils — made up of local officials — would take over control of the farm sector, and the government is considering slashing 104 state-run agricultural departments.

Granma said relying on local farm leaders to make more decisions will "stimulate agricultural production, perfect its sale and increase the availability of food and, in this way, substitute imports."

Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the nearly 3 million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation, used his brief International Workers Day speech to urge government employees to work harder and increase efficiency.

"It is fundamental to concentrate efforts on increasing production and productivity, above all of food," he said.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February, did not speak during the festivities, but smiled and waved from a podium as marchers danced, sang and screamed "Long Live Fidel! Long Live Raul!" while streaming past him in Havana's Revolution Plaza.

The event was over in under two hours — less time than Fidel used just for his speech at the last May Day event he attended in 2006.

For decades, May Day featured lengthy speeches, as well as music and even skits. But Raul, who has spent most of his life running Cuba's military, has a reputation for pragmatism and calculated efficiency.

Still, 57-year-old Rolando Gonzalez, who marched with government tourism workers, said the two brothers aren't as different as many think.

"Raul's style is the same as Fidel's. With him we are on the same road as always," he said. "But Raul does talk more about hard work, producing more and that's important."

The 81-year-old Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. But he was still the star of Thursday's parade, which began with a row of marchers carrying a huge sign reading "Revolution is Fidel." Several minutes went by before a picture of Raul came into view.

The new government has already erased bans on ordinary Cubans obtaining cell phones and renting luxury hotel rooms, as well as made it easier for state workers to own homes they once rented as part of their jobs. It also is letting more private farmers and cooperatives take a crack at putting fallow government land to better use.

The government hopes granting small farmers and local leaders more autonomy could revitalize the sector. Officials estimate that 51 percent of arable land in Cuba was underused or fallow because of government mismanagement.

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