Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hungry for change

Cuba's food shortages

Hungry for change
The timidity of agricultural reform

Mar 25th 2010 | HAVANA | From The Economist print edition

TWO years ago last month Raúl Castro formally took over as Cuba's
president from his convalescent elder brother, Fidel. The switch raised
hopes of reforms, especially of the communist country's long
dysfunctional agriculture. But change has been glacial. Official figures
show that in the first two months of this year deliveries to the
capital's food markets were a third less than forecast. Nobody starves,
but hard-currency supermarkets go for weeks without basics such as milk
and bread.

What has gone wrong? Cuba's state-owned farms are massively inefficient,
and rarely provide more than 20% of the country's food needs. Three
hurricanes in 2008 made matters worse. Raúl Castro has acknowledged the
problem, and introduced some changes. Idle state land has been leased to
private farmers. The government has raised the guaranteed prices it pays
for produce. Farmers can now legally buy their own basic equipment such
as shovels and boots, without having to wait for government handouts

But farmers say that the reforms have been too piecemeal to be
effective. In meetings across the country they have called for more.
They want to buy their own fertilisers and pesticides, and to control
distribution. The government still supplies almost everything, and does
it badly. Much of last year's bumper crop of tomatoes rotted because
government trucks failed to collect them on time.

Significantly, the state-owned media have reported the farmers'
complaints in some detail. They have also announced that 100 of the most
inefficient government farms will be closed. Officials are launching a
pilot plan to set up market gardens close to cities. And reports from
eastern Cuba suggest that food shortages there are less acute than in
the capital.

But Raúl continues to move very cautiously. So Cuba will buy much of its
food from foreign suppliers. Foreign exchange, never abundant—partly
because of the American economic embargo—is again in short supply. The
world recession cut Cuba's earnings from nickel and tourism last year.
Imports fell last year by almost 40%.

A foreign businessman in Havana says there have been signs of a further
squeeze this year. Transfers abroad by foreign businesses have been
blocked, or delayed, for months. The Spanish owner of Vima, a food
importer which supplied many hotels and state-run restaurants, made the
mistake of publicly criticising delays in getting paid. His contracts
were promptly revoked. Foreign companies have been warned that the
government may stop selling them staples, such as meat and rice, for
their staff canteens. "They told us bluntly that their priority is
feeding the general population, that the situation is very serious, and
that we should make our own arrangements," says a manager of one

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