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By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Cuban farmers have a suggestion for how the government can put millions of acres of fallow land to work and put more food on everyone’s table.
Give state-owned lands to them, and allow a bit of capitalism.
“We are all hoping for some change—a new system that allows you to have a better life and do some business,” said Elena, a small farmer from the Santiago de Cuba area. “Here, you are not even the boss of what’s yours.”
Interim president Raul Castro has made it clear as he grapples with the illness of his brother Fidel that one of the chief troubles the country faces is how to put more food on the dinner table without compromising the 49-year-old revolution’s socialist doctrine.
He has declared war on inefficient farming, doubled and tripled some of the prices that the government pays to farmers, and complained that millions of acres are now idle. Offials have said they may even allow in more foreign investments in the food sector.
The result: The government claimed late last month that the agricultural economy had grown by a whopping 24 percent in 2007—after three years of steady drops.
But food prices remain high: One pound of tomatoes can cost a day’s wage in a country where the average weekly salary is $3.25. Cuba is spending $1.6 billion annually on food imports, including $350 million last year from the United States alone.
While many farmers agree the Raúl Castro government is taking new interest in boosting production, they say that only giving land to private farmers and allowing a little more capitalism in their communist state will overcome the many obstacles in Cuba’s largely government-ruled and hugely inefficient agricultural sector.
“They claim they are reviving agriculture,” said Luis, a toothless farmer from central Cuba who turned to food crops after retiring as a cowhand. ``Reviving what? Look at the conditions I live in. Sometimes I can’t sell at all, because if I did, I wouldn’t have anything to eat.’‘
He looked at his property, a squalid collection of shacks with a dilapidated outhouse, where a phone book served as toilet paper.
Cuba’s government owns 85 percent of the arable land…