By Marc Frank | Reuters
Cuban farmers are being offered more land to boost agricultural production in a sign the communist government under acting president Raul Castro wants to encourage more private enterprise.
State officials are meeting with private farmers and cooperatives across Cuba, and participants say any farmers not working the maximum 167 acres allowed can now apply for more land as long as they are productive.
“We asked for another 135 hectares (3,375 acres) and are waiting for a response, but I’m sure we will get them,” said Evelio Cisneros, the head of a cattle cooperative in La Vallita, in Cuba’s most important agricultural province of Camaguey.
Cuba has around 250,000 family farms and 1,100 private cooperatives, an island of private ownership in an economy where the state controls 90 percent of production and individual initiative is limited to some food services, room rentals and a set number of trades, from clowns to mechanics.
Since ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro handed power over to his brother Raul Castro 16 months ago, expectations inside and outside Cuba have grown that the acting president will loosen up state regulation and expand the tiny private sector.
Grappling with the inefficient economy, Raul Castro has set up a commission to study property issues, and the land grants initiative is the first concrete step he has taken to increase the size of the private sector.
With prices for imported food soaring and local output falling, the younger Castro has put agricultural reform at the top of his agenda.
“We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled,” he said in a speech in July in Camaguey, adding that the state must offer producers adequate incentives.
When Fidel Castro seized power in a guerrilla uprising in 1959, three quarters of the land in Cuba was owned by large landowners, many of them foreigners.
They were stripped of their property—the first to be expropriated was the Castro family ranch—while tens of thousands of small farmers and agricultural laborers were allowed to keep plots of land.
But the state took for itself 64 percent of the nationalized land, setting up state farms.
In Camaguey, Cuba’s main cattle ranching province, private farmers own only 20 percent of the land and the state holds the rest, often in unproductive farms where land is falling into disuse.
The weekly economic publication Opciones recently reported that sickle bush and other weeds have become “a plague”, covering one third of Cuba’s 3.6 million hectares (90 million acres) of arable land.
A group of Raul Castro’s aides is drawing up a plan for what to do with the large tracts of vacant state land, with a deadline set for the end of this year, Communist Party sources say.
Local farmers say they are the key to any reform.
“When I was young I joined the revolution because my father and I worked like slaves for an American dairy company right here,” said family farmer Alfredo Fernandez.
“Our lives are much better now, but the truth is the area used to produce 1,000 liters of milk a day and now maybe 200 liters.
Editing by Anthony Boadle and Kieran Murray