HAVANA TIMES, May 20 (IPS) — Cuba’s strategy to boost production and reduce imports of food is intended to untangle the bureaucratic knots that hinder privately-run farms, responsible for 70 percent of the food on the country’s dinner tables.
But in the five-year program that the government announced last weekend there was no sign of liberalization for the farm sector, which is struggling to respond to the challenge of supplying food for Cuba’s 11.2 million people.
Economy Minister Marino Murillo announced the plan, which forms part of Cuba’s economic projections for 2015, at the close of the 10th Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). The statement included a call to bring the needs and interests of farmers more into line with those of the rest of society.
ANAP represents farmers who belong to the Agricultural Production (CPA) and the Credits and Services (CSS) cooperatives, which hold 41 percent of Cuba’s farmland and supply 70 percent of the value of national agricultural output.
The meeting took place behind closed doors with delegates from across this socialist-run island nation. However, several of the presentations were broadcast over Cuban state television.
Some participants complained about the bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of purchasing or directly contracting materials or equipment necessary for their farm operations. Others shared their success stories and gave tips on best practices. And many supported the possible farm tax adjustment that would be scaled based on income.
But among the most hotly debated issues was the marketing of agricultural products, most of which farmers must sell directly to the government. They are only allowed to sell an average of 30 percent of their produce for much higher prices in the farmers’ markets, where prices are determined by supply and demand.
In regards to this issue, Murillo said the problem of “illegal intermediaries” must be solved as soon as possible, because they drive up prices without contributing to society.
“Ideally, farmers should decide, based on the behavior of the market and society’s needs, what they are going to produce and to whom and where they sell it,” an expert who requested not to be identified told IPS.
Problems with centralized marketing
To that end, the ANAP Congress decided to request a review of the centralized marketing system used in the province of Havana, where farmers sell to the government purchasing and distribution agencies.
According to documents from the meeting, the delegates had numerous complaints: the existence of two parallel marketing systems with redundant functions, excessive handling of products, loss of harvests, and the fact that the cooperatives’ trucks are not used in direct sales to markets.
When President Raúl Castro began his push to improve Cuban agriculture in 2006, he pledged that the necessary structural changes would be made. Castro attended a portion of the ANAP Congress, but left the closing speech to Murillo, who also serves as vice-president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers.
In 2008, the president signed a decree to turn over idle farmland to private farmers.
According to Murillo, under that legislation some 920,000 hectares have already been distributed, although about half remains idle or under-used.
Researchers say this phenomenon proves that handing over farmland is necessary but insufficient for achieving the much-needed short-term increase in food production. “What are needed are systemic measures that allow the producer to feel ownership of his or her decisions and results,” said one expert.
The new farmers should have access to necessary financing and technical assistance and the freedom to hire the workers they need, added the expert, noting that there should also be a market of agricultural inputs, goods and services that farmers can use as needed.
Among the measures that Murillo announced is precisely the creation of markets in most of the country’s 169 municipalities where farmers can directly obtain the items they need to grow their crops. This would replace the current system of centralized distribution through the cooperatives.
“If the markets work, it will be a good thing because the crops can’t wait, and if I need a hosepipe or rope, for example, I need it now, and not when the cooperative decides to allocate it to me,” said Pablo, who farms outside of Havana and brings his products to a farmers’ market in the capital.
According to the government plan, the farming sector has to increase food production to substitute imports of rice, beans, maize, milk, coffee and other commodities, as well as improve national livestock production.
In this way, the government hopes to save some 800 million dollars on imports. The goal is also to foster revenues from exports as well as cash sales on the domestic market, which can then be pumped back into food production.