Cuba eases curbs to boost food output

Oct. 28, 2011 at 4:16 PM
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HAVANA, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Cuba is easing communist rules and nudging its agriculture toward a market economy model as part of a stepped-up government effort to boost food production.

Imports of raw foodstuffs and processed food claimed a further 25 percent of foreign earnings, prompting Cuban President Raul Castro to exhort Cubans to produce more and import less.

Communist Party daily Granma warned Cuba was running out of miracles and called on Cubans to pool energies and drive for self-sufficiency.

Castro has relaxed rules on ownership and Cubans setting themselves up as traders as part of his effort to liberalize economy in stages. A key new departure is the allocation of larger tracts of state land to private farming enterprises.

Farmers who can prove their productivity will be able to lease land nearly five times the area allowed under a 2008 decree. Until now farmers were limited to the use of 13 hectares of land.

William Hernandez Morales, a senior agricultural official in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, announced on the radio that lease holders who could demonstrate they could produce more food would be able to increase their holdings.

Years of Communist Party haranguing prompted many Cubans to grow part of their food requirements in any available green patch -- a familiar scene even in urban areas.

The Cuban state owns more than 70 percent of the arable land but critics say nearly half of that area on the island is unused. State-led agricultural production on the remainder of the land averages lower than yields attained by private entrepreneurs.

Some estimates cited in the media said Cuba's private farmers produce 57 percent of the food on only 24 percent of the land.

Castro made increased food production a top priority after taking over from brother Fidel in 2008. He also announced other economic liberalization reforms, though at a slower pace than expected by Cubans.

Although about 1.6 million hectares of state land has been leased to about 143,000 farmers since October 2008, the small plot size and other bureaucratic hurdles continue to discourage the farmers.

The government's easing of farming policies coincided with attempts to encourage foreign investors. Brazil, Venezuela and other neighboring countries have already become involved in the Cuban economy as it liberalizes.

Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca reasoned that inclusion of foreign investment "guarantees the access to markets for Cuban goods and services."

Coinciding with that shift is a renewed government effort to bring Cuba's tourism and travel sector into the 21st century, despite the continuing U.S. embargo.

Cuba has set sights on attracting 3 million tourists and earning at least $2 billion this year, mainly from Spain, Italy and Canada. Chinese tourism is also expected to rise after recent agreements between Beijing and Havana.

The government's emphasis on growing more food is a response to escalating costs of food imports, likely to reach $1.5 billion in 2011.

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