An interview with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI)
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 29 – The Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) occupies an enormous building near Havana’s Revolution Square, the island’s center of power. It has 1.2 million employees across the country, a third of whom are officials not directly connected with production.
Despite such a figure, its directors complained about the lack of personnel necessary to advance the current land reform effort, an essential area of the process of transformation being undertaken in the country.
The change is evident. “The cooperative and (individual) campesino sectors (private) already exceed 50 percent of most productions,” MINAGRI Vice Minister Ramon Frometa told us. In addition, he maintains that this percentage will increase over the next few years with the transfer of additional land.
Frometa, and Pedro Olivera, who is in charge of distributing properties nationally, agreed to be interviewed by BBC Mundo. Frometa’s first words were, “Well…here I am behind the defendant’s table.”
And in a certain way he was right. Most of the campesinos with which we’ve spoken accuse MINAGRI of constantly generating new rules and regulations that have become the principal obstacles for the development of Cuban agriculture.
Q: Why do farmers have that perception?
A: Each one would like to do what they please, but that’s not possible. It’s necessary to be governed by laws and state institutions. In any case, I believe that there’s still a lot we have to do.
Q: Your office gives them land and then prevents the farmers from building housing on it. Do you expect them to live in Havana and commute to the fields every morning?
A: I believe it’s necessary to provide them with facilities (for construction), and the solution should come with the new law on the transfer of land. Those are the things we have to improve.
Q: It took eight months to realize that the farm implements (plows, seeders, cultivators, etc.) being sold to campesinos were too expensive, even though an average of only seven were being purchased monthly across the entire country. Your solutions seem a little slow.
A: At first we thought the sales would be greater. Though it was considered slow, our decision was to do things right and not make mistakes. When we commit an error, agricultural production is curbed, and when that happens everybody says we’re not part of the solution but part of the problem.
Q: I know guajiros (small farmers) who have been offered tractors donated from overseas but your office prohibits the entry of these into the country. How do you justify that with the lack of equipment in Cuba?
A: The country has an import policy that must be respected. Also, to import items (from the United States) we have to do it through third countries because of the blockade. It’s not possible for us to allow anybody to import whatever they want. That wouldn’t be consistent with our own discipline.
Q: The guajiros blame MINAGRI for having organized a redistribution system that ends up with crops rotting in the fields.
A: Since last year we’ve only contracted for 22 products for the basic family food basket of rationed articles – the rest aren’t regulated. Therefore campesinos are free to deliver these directly to markets. I admit that last year there were a lot of problems with the tomato crop. There were errors in the system, that can’t be denied. We were responsible for all that.
For his part, Pedro Olivera (MINAGRI’s director of the National Center of Land Control) explained the advances and difficulties faced in the process transferring land, an effort that began in 2008.
Q: How has the transfer of land been going?
A: We’ve received 176,000 applications and we’ve approved 146,000. More than 1,131,000 hectares (2.8 million acres) are now in production, 79 percent of those Ok’d. Moreover, 30 percent of the new campesinos are under 35.
Q: Campesinos complain that MINAGRI drags its feet in turning over land.
A: The law establishes the maximum time of 108 days and we have more than 2,000 cases that we’re behind on. Our problem is the lack of specialized personnel in addition to negligence and feet dragging.
Q: What improvements can guajiros expect?
A: A change in the terms of usufruct (eliminating the 10-year limitation), solving the housing issue, and giving families the opportunity to work the land. All of that will encourage people to invest in agriculture.
Q: State farms hide land so that it’s not distributed. What is MINAGRI doing about that?
A: Certainly we’ve had business managers who have hidden land. Those are unhealthy attitudes. We started with 1.2 million hectares of idle land (from the state farms), and now we’re reaching 1.8 million. That gives a sense of how some people haven’t internalized the importance of what we’re doing.
Q: How can agriculture advance if you provide land but don’t sell tractors and tools?
A: That all depends on the country’s economic conditions. We decided to reduce the price of supplies, which will of course always be insufficient. Our producers are going to continue working under very limited conditions.
Q: Doesn’t it work out cheaper to provide supplies and fertilizers than to continue importing food?
Of course, but that involves gradual growth. We started up three years ago, and we never imagined that 146,000 people would be working the land. It exceeded all expectations. But the lack of supplies will continue marking and burdening the process.
Q: What’s the greatest challenge that you face?
A: The first great battle is to transfer idle lands (from state farms) where that hasn’t been done. It’s necessary for these potentially productive areas to be a part of this redistribution process. Some even possess irrigation infrastructure, meaning that investments would be much smaller.