Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cuba reforms may start on farms

Cuba reforms may start on farms

By Carol J. Williams

Los Angeles Times

Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's younger brother, has spoken openly of the
need to stimulate agricultural output.

MIAMI — Without Fidel Castro as president, Cuba is more likely to launch
reforms to boost food production, create oil-industry jobs and put more
pesos in citizens' pockets, analysts said Wednesday.

Some changes, probably starting with efforts to help farmers, are likely
to occur during the next year, some analysts said.

Raul Castro, the president's 76-year-old brother and potential
successor, and other Cuban leaders have indicated for months that
farmers might receive legal rights to their land and guaranteed market
prices for their produce.

Those changes and other economic improvements could happen more quickly
after Fidel Castro's announcement Tuesday that he would step down as
head of state after nearly half a century running the island nation,
according to analysts.

"I don't know that Cubans would be expecting something in the next two
weeks. But I do think Raul has raised expectations to a degree that
they're expecting something in the course of this year," said Phil
Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute think tank near Washington.

With food production pitifully low for a country with fertile land and a
year-round growing climate, farmers need more land and more autonomy in
tilling it to boost output. Cuba imports at least 70 percent of its
food, including a record $437 million from the United States last year.

Many Cuban farms suffer from antiquated cultivation equipment. Donkeys
and oxen are as visible in rural areas as tractors and combines.

Especially in the fields of agriculture and foreign investment, reform
can and should be embraced swiftly, said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-born
lawyer who has spent the past 15 years working to repair relations
between Cubans in the U.S. and those in Cuba.

"They haven't talked as much about it, but I think they may also reverse
the elimination of self-employment and allow more paladares (private
restaurants) and other small business," Zamora said.

Castro, 81, has long opposed anything that smacks of private enterprise
or disproportionately enriches one group of Cubans over another. But his
brother and lifelong No. 2, who began leading the country when his
brother fell ill and temporarily ceded power to him 19 months ago, has
been speaking openly in recent months about the need to stimulate
agricultural output by turning land back to those who want to work it.

It remains a mystery whether the elder Castro will split up the two most
important jobs he holds as head of state — the president of the Council
of State and president of the Council of Ministers — to give one to a
younger loyalist.

It is also unclear whom he will choose to replace his brother as first
vice president.


Adding to the complexity of the politics, Castro, whose letter of
resignation was released Tuesday, never said whether he would step down
as head of the Communist Party. Under the Constitution, the party has
greater power than the government itself.

Many analysts both abroad and in Cuba predict that Castro will continue
to pull the strings of government, assuming his health permits, while
appearing to hand off power.

"Most people received the news with a shrug of the shoulders," said
Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent critic of the government. "I have the
sensation the comandante is not going to retire from the political scene
right now."

Cuba's leaders are considered protective of Fidel Castro's legacy, which
includes providing free health care and education, even as critics point
to constraints on political dissent and personal freedoms.

"But for that legacy to survive, they need to have a working economy in
Cuba — not for the sake of the global economy but for the people of
Cuba," said Zamora, who travels to Cuba every few months to analyze
investment opportunities for clients in Latin America.

Jorge Pinon, an energy analyst with the University of Miami's Center for
Hemispheric Policy and a retired oil industry executive, agreed that
agriculture is the most likely first reform target. The country also
must address its monetary system, which inflicts a class divide between
those Cubans with access to dollars and those without, he said.

Information from The New York Times is included in this report.

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