Monday, September 28, 2009

Cuba Pins Hopes On New Farms Run for Profit

Cuba Pins Hopes On New Farms Run for Profit
Program Part of 'New Socialist Model'
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 28, 2009

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.

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

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.

Cuba Pins Hopes on New For-Profit Farms - (28
September 2009)

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