Cuba Pins Hopes on New For-Profit Farms

Oscar Carvallo, right, works on land lent to him by the Cuban government to farm on the outskirts of Havana.
Oscar Carvallo, right, works on land lent to him by the Cuban government to farm on the outskirts of Havana. (By William Booth -- The Post)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 28, 2009

CEIBA DEL AGUA, Cuba -- Faced with the smothering inefficiencies of a state-run economy and unable to feed his people without massive imports of food, Cuban leader Raúl Castro has put his faith in compatriots like Esther Fuentes and his little farm out in the sticks.

If Cuba is searching for its New New Man, then Fuentes might be him. The Cuban government, in its most dramatic reform since Castro took over for his ailing older brother Fidel three years ago, is offering private farmers such as Fuentes the use of fallow state lands to grow crops -- for a profit.

Capitalism comes to the communist isle? Not quite, but close. Raúl Castro prefers to call it "a new socialist model." But Fuentes gets to pocket some extra cash.

"The harder you work, the better you do," said Fuentes, who immediately understood the concept.

Castro's government says it has lent 1.7 million acres of unused state land in the past year to 82,000 Cubans in an effort to cut imports, which currently make up 60 percent of the country's food supply.

The United States, which has maintained a diplomatic deep freeze and a punishing economic blockade against the island for almost 50 years, is the island nation's largest supplier of food and agricultural products, selling it an average of $350 million worth of beans, rice and frozen chickens each year since 2001, when Congress created exceptions to the trade ban.

At a major speech honoring the revolution in July, Castro smacked his hand on the podium and announced: "The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let's see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our word. It is not a question of yelling 'Fatherland or Death!' or 'Down with imperialism!' or 'The blockade hurts us!' The land is there waiting for our sweat."

In an August speech, Castro said that the Cuban economy, walloped by three hurricanes last year as well as global recession, grew just 0.8 percent in the first half of 2009. The hurricanes decimated crops and caused $10 billion in damage.

Critics of Cuba's communist-style collectivist agriculture system say that the country should be a virtual Eden, given its rich soil and abundant rain, and should not have to import tons of dried peas from the imperialist aggressor to the north.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of subsidies from Moscow and Eastern Europe, Cuba abandoned its huge farms devoted to sugar cane -- and that land was quickly taken over by marabu, a tenacious, thorny weed that now covers vast tracts of Cuba the way kudzu blankets the American South.

"If they really wanted to solve their problem, they could solve it in a minute, with the stroke of a pen," by allowing private ownership and free markets, said José Alvarez, a professor emeritus and authority on Cuban agriculture at the University of Florida.

Although he has stepped out of his brother's shadow since taking office, Raúl Castro told the Cuban National Assembly in August: "I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it. We are ready to talk about everything, but not to negotiate our political and social system." Those who hope that Cuba will crumble after "the death of Fidel and all of us," Castro said, "are doomed to failure."

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