Cuba moves to decentralize agriculture economy
Posted: 25 March 2008 08:38 AM   [ Ignore ]
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By Marc Frank | Reuters

Communist Cuba has begun decentralising the state-dominated agriculture sector in what appears to be the first major move by new President Raul Castro to improve efficiency and cut bureaucracy.

At meetings across Cuba, farmers are being told decisions ranging from land use to resource allocation and sales will no longer be taken at the 17-floor agriculture ministry in Havana but at the local level, farmers who attended said.

In addition, local municipal offices will be streamlined and will take more into account the activities of private farmers and cooperatives, not just state farms, they said.

Cuba watchers say this will provide more leeway for private initiative to raise food output, Raul Castro’s top economic priority since he began running the country on a temporary basis in mid-2006.

“This represents a major shift from a vertical to horizontal approach and a change in bureaucratic mentality from a national to territorial one,” a local agriculture expert said on Monday, like others interviewed asking not to be named.

“They are moving decision-making closer to the producers and recognizing that the private sector with just a fraction of the land produces 70 percent of our produce,” he said.

Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since undergoing abdominal surgery in July 2006. He has never fully recovered and his brother Raul Castro, 76, formally took over as president last month.

Few Cuba experts expect to see dramatic reforms under Raul Castro, but the new president has begun making subtle changes to the economy that may allow the state-run system to better meet the needs of the Cuban people.

In recent decisions, the government freed up the sale of once banned consumer items like computers and DVD players, and it plans to allow farmers to buy their own supplies, such as boots and fertilizer, rather than depend on state purchases.

In a key speech last year in the central agricultural province of Camaguey, Raul Castro called for “structural” changes in agriculture to produce more food for a nation that relies on imports to feed its people.

“We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled,” he said.

The speech, endorsed by his still influential brother Fidel Castro, was used as the centerpiece for a national debate in factories, neighborhoods and among farmers about Cuba’s economic and social problems .

The head of an agricultural cooperative in Camaguey said that under the new structure, he would only have to go to one office to resolve problems, instead of many, and officials would no longer be able to shrug their shoulders and say the solution could not be decided locally.

“The local office did little more than send our problems up the line because it had no resources or power to solve practically anything,” he said in a telephone interview.

“What’s happening is what the farmers themselves proposed in the meetings, and we feel they have listened and are responding,” he said.

Cuba has around 250,000 family farms and 1,100 private cooperatives, which represent an island of individual ownership in an economy 90 percent controlled by the state. But together they till less than one third of the land.

In exchange for supplies from the state, private farmers must grow certain crops or raise certain livestock, a portion of which they must sell to the government at fixed prices.

The remainder of the land is owned by the state. Half of it lies fallow.

Last year, the state doubled and in some cases tripled what it pays for cattle, milk and other farm products. Individual farmers and cooperatives are also being offered more land and the government may open up agriculture to foreign investment.

“Decentralizing decision-making in agriculture is a clear signal that Raul Castro wants to make the Cuban economy more dynamic and responsive to the Cuban people’s needs,” said David Jessop, director of the Caribbean Council, a development organization based in London.

“It recognizes the need for a revolution in agriculture. By embracing Cuba’s private farmers, the Cuban leadership is accepting the possibility and value of alternative models of production within the socialist system,” he said.

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