Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cuba's quiet revolution

Cuba's quiet revolution

At a privately run farm west of Havana, Cuban farmer Jesus Rodriguez is
looking for some changes.

Private farmers like Rodriguez would commonly wait for their supplies to
be allocated by the state, often leaving their farms short of much
needed materials that would routinely compel them to look elsewhere.

"Sometimes in order to get seeds we need it would take up to two
months," he said standing amid a thatch of corn he planted a few months
earlier. "The seeds just wouldn't get here in time."

The country's fledgling agricultural sector and massive distribution
machine have been a source of concern for many of the country's private
farms and cooperatives.

"We've used substitutions for the necessary supplies that we seldom
receive from the government because of the economic situation," he
explained while taking shade beneath the crop's thick, green stalks.

In May the Economy Minister, Marino Murillo, heeded farmers' calls for
more autonomy and announced that private farms will be permitted to
purchase goods directly from suppliers.

"It looks like [Cuba] is going to try to take apart this big bureaucracy
that's in charge of distribution and purchasing of food from the
farmers," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in
Washington D.C.

"[That would] allow farmers to have a more direct connection with
consumers of all kinds."

A similar initiative in 2008 permitted some farmers to purchase supplies.

But the cash-strapped island nation faces mounting debt and routine
shortages, leaving the questions of where to buy supplies, how to
acquire credit, and how to improve transport to market largely unanswered.

Still, analysts praised Cuba's economic potential.

"That potential can be realized if their government gets out of the
way," Peters said. "And they don't have to abandon the socialist model.
They can adapt it and use more market mechanisms in a lot of ways."

The country's association of roughly 350,000 private farmers has been
central to recent reforms and often the focus of President Raul Castro's
attempts to address chronic food shortages on the island.

Cuba's private farmers and cooperatives use only about 40 percent of the
nation's farmland, but produce roughly 70 percent of the food grown on
the island.

"I think the reason [for the high productivity among private farmers] is
the sense of property that the person has," one farmer explained who
declined to provide his name.

"Because where you work you have the feeling that it belongs to you and
you fight and defend it because it's your own."

Raul Castro assumed power from his ailing brother and former president
Fidel Castro in 2006, at first temporarily then permanently in 2008, and
has long considered food security integral to national security.

Murillo's recent announcement also comes on the heels of a series of
small liberalization measures aimed at improving production, while
attempting to maintain the communist nation's egalitarian doctrine.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero in May announced plans to open up real
estate on tourism-related projects, laying out plans for new hotels
across the country.

And Cuba instituted a pilot program in April that turned over hundreds
of state-run barbershops and beauty salons to employees.

"I think both Fidel Castro and Raul Castro have both recognized problems
in the economy," explained analyst Peters. "But Fidel Castro's
prescription was always for people to work harder and for the government
to enforce the law."

President Raul Castro "is looking at incentives," he said. "He's looking
to fix the model."

Whether this latest move is a part of broader market reforms or a narrow
effort to make farms more productive is not clear. But for now Cuba
still imports a majority of its food.

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