Cuba Pins Hopes On New Farms Run for Profit

Washington Post:

CEIBA DEL AGUA, Cuba — Faced with the smothering inefficiencies of a state-run economy and unable to feed his people without massive imports of food, Cuban leader Raúl Castro has put his faith in compatriots like Esther Fuentes and his little farm out in the sticks.

Cuba farm distribution

Cuba farm distribution

If Cuba is searching for its New New Man, then Fuentes might be him. The Cuban government, in its most dramatic reform since Castro took over for his ailing older brother Fidel three years ago, is offering private farmers such as Fuentes the use of fallow state lands to grow crops — for a profit.

Capitalism comes to the communist isle? Not quite, but close. Raúl Castro prefers to call it “a new socialist model.” But Fuentes gets to pocket some extra cash.

“The harder you work, the better you do,” said Fuentes, who immediately understood the concept.

Castro’s government says it has lent 1.7 million acres of unused state land in the past year to 82,000 Cubans in an effort to cut imports, which currently make up 60 percent of the country’s food supply.

The United States, which has maintained a diplomatic deep freeze and a punishing economic blockade against the island for almost 50 years, is the island nation’s largest supplier of food and agricultural products, selling it an average of $350 million worth of beans, rice and frozen chickens each year since 2001, when Congress created exceptions to the trade ban.

At a major speech honoring the revolution in July, Castro smacked his hand on the podium and announced: “The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let’s see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our word. It is not a question of yelling ‘Fatherland or Death!’ or ‘Down with imperialism!’ or ‘The blockade hurts us!’ The land is there waiting for our sweat.”

In an August speech, Castro said that the Cuban economy, walloped by three hurricanes last year as well as global recession, grew just 0.8 percent in the first half of 2009. The hurricanes decimated crops and caused $10 billion in damage.

Critics of Cuba’s communist-style collectivist agriculture system say that the country should be a virtual Eden, given its rich soil and abundant rain, and should not have to import tons of dried peas from the imperialist aggressor to the north.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of subsidies from Moscow and Eastern Europe, Cuba abandoned its huge farms devoted to sugar cane — and that land was quickly taken over by marabu, a tenacious, thorny weed that now covers vast tracts of Cuba the way kudzu blankets the American South.

“If they really wanted to solve their problem, they could solve it in a minute, with the stroke of a pen,” by allowing private ownership and free markets, said José Alvarez, a professor emeritus and authority on Cuban agriculture at the University of Florida.

Although he has stepped out of his brother’s shadow since taking office, Raúl Castro told the Cuban National Assembly in August: “I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it. We are ready to talk about everything, but not to negotiate our political and social system.” Those who hope that Cuba will crumble after “the death of Fidel and all of us,” Castro said, “are doomed to failure.”

Brian Latell, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami and author of “After Fidel,” said: “This farm reform is one of Raúl’s highest priorities. He talks about it constantly. But the steps have been more reluctant, slower, more tentative than many Cubans would probably like.”

The 78-year-old former brigadier general has signaled that the paternalistic Cuban system may include a little more tough love and a bit more free enterprise. The government is in the process of eliminating subsidized beer for weddings, holidays for exemplary workers, hotel rooms for newlyweds and free chocolate cakes for Mother’s Day. In one of the most watched pilot programs, Cuba is beginning to shutter state-run cafeterias and instead give workers 15 pesos, or about 65 cents, to buy lunch from state-run cafes or private food stalls. The average monthly salary in Cuba is about $20.

Out in the countryside, Castro’s farm reform has set the villages buzzing. Chewing on an unlit cigar, Fuentes took a visitor on a tour of his new domain. Last year, he worked nine acres of land, mostly for self-consumption, “plus a little left over to sell.” This year he applied for and was quickly granted another 20 acres. The plot is his to farm for 10 years, and the only requirement is that he plant crops.

Fuentes pointed to his new fields of sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cassava and beans. He’s also growing flowers to sell. Chickens were running around, and trees bore monster avocados. The future looks better.

“This is big change,” he said. “Everyone wants in.”

His adult daughter Marta works for the local farm cooperative, where Fuentes and other private farmers sell their crops. The state still sets the price — but the more the farmers produce, the more they sell. They also try to grow better-quality produce, which fetches a higher price. They are paid in cash, which Fuentes appreciates, and they are not told what to plant.

“Right now, there are shortages of everything,” Fuentes said, “so there is no risk of overproduction.”

Marta Fuentes said the local cooperative now has 44 farms as members, up from 31 a year ago. “And not only are there more farmers, the farms themselves, like ours, are bigger,” she said. There are more fresh fruits and vegetables available in local markets, she said, and a recent report from the Associated Press said that some commodities appear more abundant in Havana these days.

So depressed is the Cuban economy that the government is pushing farmers to use oxen to plow the fields. “Let’s forget about tractors and fuels for this program, even if we had them,” Castro said.

The Fuentes family uses a couple of oxen. “Not having any machinery might seem backward, but in some ways the oxen are better,” Fuentes said. He can borrow a tractor from the cooperative if he needs one. But the fuel costs are prohibitive.

One of the challenges facing private farmers is the lack of credit and investment. They can work their new farms, but they often don’t have enough fertilizer, seed or fuel. There’s not enough electricity to run water pumps, Fuentes said, and no one has pesticides.

“This a big problem,” said Alvarez, the University of Florida professor. “The government gives the farmers some land, which is good, but they don’t give them any inputs. So they tell them, ‘Take your old machete and go and fight the sun and weather and save us.’ ”

“It’s not much extra money, but believe me, every little bit helps us,” said Marta Bobadilla, a retired shop clerk who was given the use of 1.5 acres behind her house on the outskirts of Havana, which she has transformed into an urban garden filled with bananas, okra, sweet potatoes and leafy vegetables to feed her rabbits.

Asked if the cute little white bunnies might be sold as pets, Bobadilla thought that funny. This is Cuba. “These are to eat,” she said.

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