April 11, 2008

HAVING SHOWN WHAT THEY CAN DO:

Cuba reforms bring shrugs and expectations: Despite an official go-ahead, people are no more able to buy cellphones and other gadgets than before. But hope for change is in the air. (Carol J. Williams, 4/11/08, Los Angeles Times)

Outside Havana, another free-market reform effort by Castro is stirring broader interest.

Beyond the five-story blocks of dreary apartments, where urban sprawl gives way to tidy rows of crops and roadside farm stands, those tilling the rich soil of this tropical island see hope for boosting output and income as socialism's micromanagers bow out.

That Cuba produces so little of the food it needs despite a year-round growing climate is one of the nagging forces driving Castro to shake up the status quo in the countryside. Cuba imports more than 80% of the commodities distributed in the monthly ration basket, notes Paolo Spadoni, an expert on the Cuban economy who teaches at Rollins College in central Florida. He estimates that food imports cost Havana more than $1.6 billion a year.

In an effort to dramatically expand crop output, the leadership has begun making more land available to farmers and allowing them to sell fruit, vegetables, meat and milk at prices set according to demand, instead of government edict.

At prosperous farms such as a 25-acre plot in Barbosa, half an hour from the capital, the expectation of doubling cultivated acreage and profit has the private collective planting from sunup to sundown.

The eight laborers who work the land earn 35 pesos for an eight-hour day, only about $1.40, but a kingly sum in a country where a month's work, whether by a manual laborer or a doctor, brings home less than $20.

"We are getting more land because we've shown what we can do with it," Victor, the farm's agronomist, said proudly of the state loan of another 25 acres for their collective.

The work is grueling, with only two oxen and not a mechanized vehicle in sight among the orderly rows of lettuce, corn, carrots, peppers, spinach and tomatoes.

Private farmers remain uncertain how far Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel less than two months ago, will go in removing the ideological obstacles to initiative and independence. But they believe their fortunes can change quickly.

The easing of rules against selling produce at market prices -- previously considered exploitation -- is expected to boost income and buying power among farmers. Urban Cubans hope the step is a sign that more opportunity for self-employment also will emerge in the cities.

Entrepreneurial by nature and exposed to the dollar-bearing tourists who flood Cuba each year, city dwellers saddled with low-wage jobs often moonlight to make ends meet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2008 8:10 AM
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