MEXICO CITY — President Raúl Castro continued his rollout of changes in Cuba on Friday with the start of a plan to boost the island’s sluggish food production by granting private farmers access to up to 99 acres of unused government land. Cuba seized land from most large-scale farmers after the 1959 revolution; the latest announcement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma stopped well short of a return to pre-revolution private enterprise. Under the new system, private farmers, who have continued to exist under Cuba’s socialist system, would have access to the plots for up to a decade, with leases renewable if conditions were met and taxes paid. Cooperatives and state farms would also qualify for more land, for up to 25 years. But the fields would stay in the hands of the government, which controls an estimated 90 percent of the island’s economy.
The new plan, mentioned several months ago but formally announced Friday, is intended to jump-start food production at a time when Cuba is feeling the effects of the global rise in food prices. Last year, Cuba spent nearly $1.5 billion for food imports, much of that from producers in the United States that were granted a special exemption from Washington’s trade embargo on Cuba. This year, the island’s bill for food imports is expected to rise by another $1 billion, officials have said, calling the issue one of national security. Cuba’s government released statistics last month showing that fallow or underused agricultural land had increased to 55 percent in 2007, up from 46 percent five years earlier, The Associated Press reported. The announcement on Friday acknowledged the struggle that the country was facing in feeding itself. “For various reasons, there is a considerable percentage of state land sitting vacant, so it must be handed over to individuals or groups as owners or users in an effort to increase production of food and reduce imports,” the government decree said.
The plan appeared partly designed to prompt more Cubans, who are drawn to the cities for more opportunity, to give agriculture a try. Those who do not currently farm any land would be given access to up to 33 acres for farming, the government said. Mr. Castro took over provisionally for his ailing brother, Fidel, in July 2006. But he has begun putting his own stamp on the country only since February, when he formally became the second president of Cuba in the last half century. In recent months, he has allowed Cubans with enough money to buy cellphones and computers, which had previously been restricted. He has allowed them to rent cars and visit tourist hotels and opened up the possibility of private taxis. And he has taken the limits off state salaries, allowing for productivity bonuses. Where he has stood firm is on political dissent, continuing his brother’s insistence that overt criticism of the system and government amounted to disloyalty.
Many Cubans relished the changes even as they complained bitterly that giving them access to consumer items did little to boost their state salaries. In a speech at the close of the National Assembly earlier this month, the president made clear that he was remaking some aspects of the country. The ideal of everyone, a doctor or a laborer, earning the same amount, with no regard to productivity, seems to be fading. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” he said. “Equality is not egalitarianism.” In the speech, Mr. Castro prepared Cubans for tough times ahead. “It’s my duty to speak frankly, because it would be unethical to create false expectations,” he said. “To tell you otherwise would be misleading.” He went on to exhort Cubans to make the island more self-sufficient. “We must go back to the land,” he said.