Friday, September 28, 2007

Raul Castro launches Cuba-wide debate on future

By Marc Frank
Thursday, September 20, 2007; 12:48 PM

HAVANA (Reuters) - At workplaces and in neighborhoods across Cuba, people are complaining about the state of their country in a national debate on economic reform opened by acting President Raul Castro.

After years of economic crisis, Cubans are being asked to propose fixes in group discussions after Castro acknowledged in a keynote speech on July 26 that wages are too low and agriculture needs structural reforms to feed the country.

"People were expressing themselves like never before about all the problems in their lives," a Communist Party member said after attending a meeting. "Raul is raising everyone's expectations, so he better have some solutions."

Common complaints range from low wages, which average about $15 a month, and poor services to restrictions on killing your own cow, buying cars and booking rooms in hotels reserved for tourists.

"When the meeting started, nobody wanted to speak, but we were told to speak out frankly about the issues raised by Raul, and everything that affects us," said Lariza, who sells coffee to her fellow workers to supplement her salary.

Since "temporarily" taking charge of the Cuban government and the Communist Party from his ailing 81-year-old brother Fidel Castro a year ago, Raul Castro has repeatedly called for more debate and constructive criticism.

He also demanded studies from experts on reform proposals to raise productivity, including on the state's ownership of the economy, which exceeds 90 percent.

But it is not yet clear how far he plans to take reforms, and Fidel Castro pushed similar initiatives in the past.

"Grass-roots debate is not new in Cuba. There was a similar debate led by Fidel in the late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s," said Rafael Hernandez, editor of "Temas" (Issues), a magazine that for a decade has encouraged limited discussion of controversial issues from race relations to market economics.

The last issue focused on transitions in the former Soviet Union, China and other countries, and featured intellectuals, youth leaders and Cuban officials, many of whom said state control of the economy was not a prerequisite for socialism.

"What's new is that Fidel is less active and others need to build a new consensus as people are not responding to current policy," Hernandez said. "Cubans interpret Raul's call for structural change to mean deep changes in the model, not just a cosmetic change."


Fidel Castro writes regular essays for the state-run media and officials say he is consulted on important issues, but he has not been seen, even in a photograph, since early June.
In his absence, there is growing pressure to make changes.
"It's reform or perish! The world and in particular, Latin America and the Caribbean have changed so dramatically that it becomes inevitable to rethink Cuban socialism," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in the early 1990s and now teaches college in Florida.
Canadian historian and author on Cuba, John Kirk, says Cuba is now better able to consider economic reforms because its finances have recovered thanks to a close alliance with oil-producing Venezuela, generous trade credits from China and high prices for its nickel exports.
"The Cuban government is in the process of seeking innovative approaches to an unusual dilemma," Kirk said. "The economic situation continues to improve, but inequalities and other problems persist from the long post-Soviet crisis."
Another complaint in discussion groups has been Cuba's dual currency system, under which state salaries are paid in pesos and consumer goods are sold in hard currency, the so-called convertible peso.
Authorities have studied unifying the currencies, but economists say economic productivity must come first.
Self-employed Cubans, a minority often attacked by Fidel Castro for getting rich at the expense of state subsidies, have also been invited to debate reforms at neighborhood watch groups, which serve as the eyes and ears of the revolution.
"They read out part of Raul's speech, and then they asked me if I had any problems working," said Jacinto, who sells ham and cheese sandwiches and juices from his home, with a state license.
"They asked me if the taxes I paid were too high," Jacinto said with amazement. Not surprisingly, he said they were.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Vales)

Raul Castro stirs hopes for Cuba farmers

By Marc Frank September 18, 2007
JARUCO, Cuba (Reuters) - Down on the ranch, the talk among the cattle hands is that help is on its way.
And it could not come sooner for Cuba's state-owned agriculture, where production has slumped for years and weeds are taking over unused fields.
Roasting a pig over a fire amid the dust and flies, ranch manager Manolo sips rum and gazes out over the pastures of the farming cooperative where he has worked for a decade.
"A year ago I sold 22 head of cattle to the state for 18,000 pesos. This year the same number brought more than 60,000," he said. That is the equivalent of $2,700, up from $810 last year.
"Things are moving in the right direction. We have to make unused land produce and we need more resources for that," said Manolo, who asked that his last name not be used because of government rules about talking to foreign journalists.
Similar upbeat talk can be heard across Cuba's countryside, spurred by acting president Raul Castro, who has been running the government since his brother, ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, fell ill more than a year ago.
Raul Castro has made agriculture a top priority, stressing the need to produce more food in a country that relies on imports to feed its 11 million people, even from the United States, its ideological foe since Cuba's 1959 revolution.
The younger Castro has doubled and tripled what the state pays for cattle, milk and other farm products, and cut red-tape that often left farmers unpaid and crops to rot.
In a key speech on July 26 in the central agricultural province of Camaguey, Raul Castro called for "structural and conceptual changes" in the state-dominated agricultural sector to reverse a decline in output and reduce prices.
"We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled ... we must offer these producers adequate incentives for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat," he said.
Raul's aides are hard at work on a plan with a year-end deadline, Communist party sources report.
The workers at Manolo's ranch climb aboard a beat-up 1948 Chevrolet truck to tour their cooperative, called a Basic Unit of Production, where they own everything but the land, which is leased to them by the state free of charge.
Cattle and sheep graze over the low-lying hills, but almost half the land is covered by a prickly brush called "marabu" and a waste-high weed that farmers call the "witch's weed" because it quickly renders pasture useless.
"We need a bulldozer or at least machetes to cut this down, then herbicide to kill the roots to stop it reappearing," said a ranch hand as the truck bounced along a dirt road. "Not even goats can eat the stuff."
Cuba is emerging from a severe economic crisis triggered by the 1991 collapse of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, and the loss of massive subsidies that resulted in shortages of food, fuel, transportation and capital.
Agricultural inputs, such as seed, fertilizers, pesticides and farm equipment, were cut by 80 percent.
Cuba's inefficient farm production almost ground to a halt, land fell into disuse and the dreaded "marabu" spread.
The weekly economy newspaper Opciones recently reported that "marabu and other weeds have become a plague in Cuba" that covers one third of the 3.6 million hectares (9 million acres) of arable land.
The closure of half Cuba's sugar mills in 2003 added sugar cane plantations to the vast tracts of unused land and deepened the crisis in agriculture by throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.
Cuba has gradually pulled out of its economic crunch with financial help from Venezuela and China, and high prices for its top export commodity, nickel. This has allowed the state to assign resources to upgrade farming infrastructure.
Many Cuban farmers, however, believe that more incentive is needed to turn Cuban agriculture around. Some experts argue that the state should hand land over to the farmers and farming cooperatives if it wants to raise productivity.
Most of the land in Cuba is owned by the state, making it perhaps the largest unproductive landowner in Latin America.
"Here there is land and enough men to produce all the food the country needs," said farmer Arsenio Perez in a telephone interview from eastern Santiago de Cuba province.
"The only thing you need now is to bring them together in the best way and you'll see how the land provides all that's missing," he said.
After Castro's 1959 revolution, large landowners were stripped of their property (his father's estate was the first to be confiscated). Hundreds of thousands of private holdings of up to 6.5 hectares were allowed, including the growers of the tobacco leaves for Cuba's famous hand-rolled cigars.
But, unlike other socialist countries, the state kept most of the land for itself.
"Small farmers own just 15 percent of the land," said sociologist Aurelio Alonso in a discussion on property in the magazine Temas. "But they produce 60 percent of what we eat."