By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro, looking to increase food production in his socialist country, has granted farmers and agricultural cooperatives the right to work more land, according to a decree published on Friday. Private farmers who have shown themselves to be productive can increase their current land to a maximum of 99 acres (40 hectares) for a period of 10 years. The deal can be renewed, said the decree published in Communist Party newspaper Granma. Cooperatives and state farms can also request additional land to work for 25 years, with the possibility of renewing for another 25, according to the new law. It did not specify how much more land the cooperatives can get. The decree, promised for some time by Castro, is the latest of several reforms he has implemented to make Cuba's state-run economy more productive since formally replacing ailing brother Fidel Castro as president in February.
He has said Cuba needs to increase food production to replace imports, which have been rising in price. Cuban officials said the Caribbean island paid $1.47 billion in 2007 for food imports and expect that figure to rise by $1 billion this year. Under Cuban land reform put in place after the revolution, Cubans could own up to 165 acres of land, so the new decree appears aimed at smaller farmers. The change was welcome, said a member of a cooperative in the central state of Camaguey. "We have been waiting a long time for the law, no doubt that's because it was done in Raul's style, well thought out and analyzed so that later it does not have to be changed," she said, asking not to be identified. She said meetings were already being called to discuss the new law and that she understood land grants might well include some resources and equipment.
Cuba expert Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington said China made similar reforms in the 1980s and ran into problems meeting farmers' needs for equipment and other resources. "China gave out less than 99 acres to private farmers and still had resource issues. It's one thing to grow vegetables and fruits in your small plot in Havana, it's quite another to be productive with 99 acres," he said in an e-mail. "I imagine the Raulistas have considered this problem and have come up with a solution," he said. Castro previously moved to decentralize agriculture management, once centered in Havana, and increase agricultural supplies.
Farmers will have to pay taxes on their expanded operations, which follows Castro's recent comments that Cuba will have to develop a more comprehensive tax system as part of the effort to modernize the economy. Castro took power provisionally in July 2006 after Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery for an undisclosed ailment. He was formally elected by the National Assembly in February to replace his brother. Since then, he has taken limits off salaries, opened sales of cell phones and computers to the public and opened previously off-limits tourist hotels to Cubans.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel, editing by Jeff Franks and Michael Christie)