Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cuba: Handcuffs off but shackles remain

Monday May 05, 2008
By Rory Carroll
The fertile Caribbean island is littered with dysfunctional state and privately owned farms which cannot feed the 11 million population. Photo / Reuters

The fertile Caribbean island is littered with dysfunctional state and privately owned farms which cannot feed the 11 million population. Photo by Reuters

Last week saw a series of announcements for Cubans from their new President Raul Castro and on Saturday shoppers gathered in Havana malls to gaze for the first time at computers legally on sale.

The computers cost almost £400 and the average wage is under £10 a month so most were just looking.

But it is the other, less flashy reforms that may bring a more profound impact - reforms intended to breathe life into Cuba's economy by giving farmers incentives and freedoms.

At May Day celebrations the Government announced it was shifting control from the ossified agriculture ministry to 169 local delegations.

It may abolish 104 unnecessary departments.

The Communist party newspaper Granma said the move was to "stimulate agricultural production, perfect its sale and increase the availability of food and, in this way, substitute imports". Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the Cuban Workers' Confederation, reinforced the point.

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

The Government has signalled a transfer of land to private farmers, who are quietly recognised to be far more productive than state-owned enterprises.

The state, which controls 90 per cent of the economy, is to further loosen its grip by allowing farmers to buy supplies directly.

It has also doubled and in some cases tripled the prices it pays for some produce.

Cuban agriculture is a disaster. Some farms lack not only tractors but basic tools.

This is a fertile Caribbean island littered with dysfunctional farms which cannot feed the 11 million population, let alone export.

The three biggest successes of the communist revolution are health, education and sport, goes the old joke, and the three biggest failures are breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That could change.

If Raul Castro succeeds in boosting agriculture he will bolster the post-Fidel transition.

Nobody starves but most Cubans struggle for decent nutrition. Farmers are strangled by red tape requiring permission to buy as much as a hoe.

"The handcuffs are being taken off, though there is still a ball and chain around the ankles," said one foreign expert in the capital.

Some 150,000 individual farms and co-operatives are estimated to produce two-thirds of Cuba's food using just a third of the workable land. Anaemic state farms occupy the rest.

Raul Castro has studied China and Vietnam where the regimes have retained political control while freeing the economy. He wants changes to boost output.

"The land is there to be tilled . . . We must offer producers adequate incentives."

Cuba imports 80 per cent of its basic food with a third coming from the United States which exempts food from its economic embargo.

The imports cost £800 million annually, a drain on state coffers set to worsen as global prices rise.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba expert at Pittsburgh University, fears that the reforms do not go far enough.

"Many Cuban economists believe that in agriculture, only market mechanisms and foreign investment will prove able to truly overcome stagnation," he said.

But the mood among farmers was upbeat. "We have been waiting for this for so long," said Luis Pi, head of a co-operative growing vegetables.

"We can do it if they let us. Come back in a few months. You'll see."

* Food imports rose to almost US$2 billion in 2007
* Cuba imports about 80 per cent of its food
* About 50 per cent of arable land is under-utilised or simply fallow
* Individual farms and the 1100 co-operatives produce more than half the country's produce on a third of the tilled land

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