28Sep2011 RTRS-Cuban farmers impatient with pace of reform
* Farmers charge local bureaucrats undermine reform
* Land lease program proves insufficient
* State maintains monopoly on key farm inputs and sales
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Cuban farmers are frustrated with the pace of reform under President Raul Castro, charging that bureaucratic bungling and self interest are undercutting efforts to increase production, according to a telephone survey by Reuters this week.
They said some of the hallmark reforms they once applauded, such as a land grant program and decentralization of agricultural management, were turning out to be woefully insufficient in practice.
Decentralization had become a double-edged sword as some local officials protect their interests and undermine a pledge by Castro to lift the state's monopoly on farm inputs and the purchase and sale of what they produce, farmers said.
Castro began leasing fallow state lands soon after taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008.
He also decentralized decisionmaking away from the central government, increased prices paid for produce, opened stores where secondary farm supplies such as clothing and tools are sold and promised farmers more freedom to grow and sell their crops.
But the communist-run country's agriculture remains in crisis and the state monopoly remains in place more than three years after the reforms began.
In recent speeches, Castro himself has expressed growing impatience with bureaucrats hindering the implementation of wide-ranging reforms he says are needed to ensure the survival of Cuban socialism.
"It is a diabolical system that will drive you crazy," Arsenio, a farmer in Holguin province said of the state's food contracting system.
"You first sign a contract covering when and what you are going to plant in exchange for supplies. Later, you have to confirm and ratify how much you will produce, something that's just about impossible," he said, like others requesting that his full name not be used.
"And if you come up short, they demand compensation and if you produce more, they don't come get your produce because it wasn't contracted," he said.
Ninety-seven of Cuba's 169 municipalities are rural, where those who control agriculture control the only business and money flow in town.
The farmers charged that Castro's reforms were being sabotaged by these local power structures.
"Agriculture officials at the intermediary levels think that if they apply these reforms they will lose their own importance, lose their power and the advantages and privileges they now enjoy," said a retired president and still active member of a cattle cooperative in central Camaguey.
"That is why they keep looking for ways to limit reform: yes the contracts, yes centralized supplies, defining the quality of products and many more measures they take to force the producer to come to them, to depend on them," he said.
Agriculture output increased 6.1 percent through June, compared with the same period in 2010, a year that saw a 2.5 percent decline despite the reforms. But food production remains below 2005 levels and food prices at farmers markets have increased 7.8 percent this year, according to the government.
The state owns more than 70 percent of the arable land on the Caribbean island, of which some 50 percent lies fallow and the remainder produces less than the private sector.
"Private farmers currently produce 57 percent of the food on only 24.4 percent of the land," a local agricultural expert said.
The cash-strapped government imports 60 percent to 70 percent of the population's food.
Some 4 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of land have been granted to 143,000 farmers and would-be farmers since the land lease program began in October 2008, according to the Agriculture Ministry, around 50 percent of what is available.
Farmers said the numbers were deceptive because there was little financing to put land into production and the time, size and conditions of the leases undercut their purpose.
"The government says they have issued 13,000 bank credits, but the credits are very narrow, for example to buy livestock but not clear the land, purchase milking supplies or fencing," said Alfredo, a farmer in eastern Guantanamo province.
Plots of no more than 33 acres (13.42 hectares) are leased for ten years to new farmers under the land grant program, with the option to renew, but building homes on the land is prohibited.
Under Cuban land reform put in place after the revolution farmers could own up to 165 acres (67 hectares) of land, five times that offered under the land lease program.
"Only someone sitting in an office in Havana with no idea what goes on in the countryside would lease land for just ten years and prohibit building permanent structures on it," Jorge, the president of a group of private farmers in Camaguey who collectively receive credits and services from the state, said.
The Camaguey farm leader said the government should authorize building homes on the land and at the same time increase the size of land grants and make them indefinite.
Alfredo in Guantanamo agreed.
"It is absurd to try to work a plot of land and when the night arrives leave it till the following day. Who is going to protect your animals and crops?" he said.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Jackie Frank)