By: The Economist
29/03/2010 1:00 AM
Two years ago last month, Raul 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 per cent of the country's food needs.
Three hurricanes in 2008 made matters worse.
Raul 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 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 fertilizers 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 Raul 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 per cent.
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 that supplied many hotels and
state-run restaurants, made the mistake of publicly criticizing delays
in getting paid. His contracts were promptly revoked.
Foreign companies have been warned 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 joint venture.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2010 A10