Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cuba examines food production problems

Posted on Tue, Jun. 26, 2007

Cuba examines food production problems
Associated Press Writer

Hundreds of trucks overflowing with plantains, sweet potatoes and onions
converge on the Plaza of the Revolution each month as farmers sell
produce to tens of thousands of people.

Here's where Cubans come seeking affordable food. While they may not be
able to find everything they want, they are increasingly getting what
they need, even as the island's communist leaders grow more worried
about drops in food production and prices that remain frustratingly high
for many Cubans.

One man in his 60s trundled through the plaza with a rusty wheelbarrow
loaded with two huge branches of plantains he said he bought to feed his
five grandchildren. A middle-aged woman pushed by with more plantains,
braided strings of garlic and a huge slab of pink-and-white frosted cake
balanced on top of her banged-up supermarket cart.

"Onions! Strings of onions!" a young man cried out, holding six strands
of red and white bulbs on each arm as consumers carted away other fresh
produce in baby strollers, luggage carts and plastic milk cartons
fastened behind bicycle seats.

The quantity of goods sold at the monthly government-organized produce
fairs demonstrates how Cuba's food situation has eased 15 years after
widespread shortages were sparked by the Soviet Union's collapse and an
end to economic subsidies from the Kremlin.

But communist leaders and producers aren't satisfied. They want changes
to get more affordable goods to market, and they're disturbed by a 7
percent drop in the nation's food production last year.

Lawmakers under acting president Raul Castro's leadership are examining
the issue this week before the full National Assembly debates it Friday.

Cuba's food production "is insufficient and commercialization is
deficient," Vice President Carlos Lage told municipal leaders this month.

Cuba spends about $1.6 billion annually for food imports, about a third
of it from the U.S. It even imports about 82 percent of the $1 billion
worth of food it sells at subsidized prices to all Cubans on the ration
system, including rice, potatoes, beans, meat and other goods.

Raul Castro, the 76-year-old defense minister leading the government
while his 80-year-old brother Fidel recovers from intestinal surgery,
has long considered food a national security issue. "Beans are more
important than cannon," he told the 5th Communist Party Congress in 1997.

He argued for the farmers markets in 1994, and earlier created the Youth
Work Army, a military branch that produces food for the nation. At the
last parliament session in December, he demanded that agriculture
officials increase production and make overdue payments to small farmers
and cooperatives.

Lage later said the payment problem was resolved, but farmers complain
they need more government help.

Orlando Lugo, president of the National Association of Small Farmers,
told the state-run magazine Bohemia this year that farmers need
tractors, farm equipment and fuel. "There are cooperatives around Havana
with the potential to double and even triple their production," he said.

Much potentially productive government land is not being used, including
former sugar cane fields now infested with a fast-growing, thorny bush
called marabu, Lugo added.

Many perishable crops, meanwhile, spoil because of scarce transportation
or faulty coordination by state agencies contracted to pick them up, the
Communist Party newspaper Granma reported Monday.

State economist Ariel Terrero says Cuba should produce more of its own
food to save on import costs. Between 2002 and 2005, Cuba increased rice
imports by 36 percent but paid 105 percent more for them because of
rising international prices.

"The perpetual bleeding conspires against the possibilities of the
nation's economic development," Terrero wrote in Bohemia earlier this year.

The cooperatives and small farming enterprises were created in 1993 when
the government restructured its centralized food system, breaking up big
state farms into smaller worker-owned and managed units. Smaller parcels
went to individual farmers.

Less than 15 years later, more than 150,000 individual farmers and
agriculture cooperatives now produce two-thirds of the country's food
using just a third of the island's workable land. State farms work the rest.

The cooperatives and small farms produce most of the nation's beans,
corn and root crops - all once produced by state farms. They also
produce a third of Cuba's rice, 42 percent of its milk and more than
half of all meat, including pork, beef, goat and sheep.

After meeting state quotas, the farmers can sell the rest of their goods
at the farmers markets. More than 300 such markets now operate
nationwide, including about 50 in Havana, according to a study by Cuba
specialist Phil Peters at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area
policy group that supports free enterprise.

The state and Youth Work Army also sell vegetables at much lower prices
at small neighborhood stands.

An urban agriculture program, another pet project of Raul Castro,
created an additional important food source in the early 1990s. Today,
more than 350,000 gardeners in a nation of 11.2 million people grow
fruit and vegetables in and around cities, selling produce directly to
the public.

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