July 14, 2008


Cuba revives its private farms: In a series of reforms aimed at improving self-sufficiency and curbing costly food imports, Raul Castro has the idle lands around cities planted. (Carol J. Williams, 7/14/08, Los Angeles Times)

President Raul Castro spurred the planting of idle lands around cities with a series of reforms in recent months aimed at improving self-sufficiency. The moves included making land available free to those willing to till it and easing a strangling national bureaucracy that once controlled a farmer's every step, from seed procurement to sales price.

Castro has unleashed an ambitious effort to lift output of high-ticket items, raising prices paid to meat and milk producers and freeing growers from obligations to sell their food to the state.

He has made seeds, tools and fertilizers available through a new network of country stores and challenged a population that is 80% urban to grow what it eats.

But a swift expansion in meat and dairy production remains a daunting task, as few farming co-ops have money to pay for cattle even when the prices for their products are increasingly enticing. Predictions of quick results appear to echo the excess ambition of the failed drive in 1970 to harvest 10 million tons of sugar and the unfulfilled plans of past decades to provide each family with its own milk cow.

The government expects to cut food imports by at least 5% next year, Deputy Agriculture Minister Juan Perez Lama told journalists in Havana in early June. He also predicted that rice imports could be halved within five years -- a herculean task considering that Cuba last year imported $170 million worth from Vietnam, China and the United States.

Cuban state enterprises grew about 10% of the 700,000 tons of rice consumed last year. Private farmers produced about twice that. Although 70% has to be imported, scholars point to the rise in the small-farm output begun a decade ago.

"It's an impressive goal [to halve rice imports] but I do think Cuba is in a unique position to achieve it," said Catherine Murphy, a San Francisco Bay Area sociologist working on development projects in Latin America.

China has demonstrated what high growth rates you can achieve when you start from nearly nothing, but it also shows the limits. It will die off before its people ever get rich. Cuba could face the same problem unless it also invites evangelization and radically reforms its culture.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 14, 2008 9:27 AM
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