After we passed hills littered with grim, gray smokestacks and untended fields, the Slusovice cooperative farm stood out. Not far from the greenhouses, workers assemble IBM-compatible computers. Others are training thoroughbreds at the farm's impressive racetrack. Don't forget, said manager Frantisek Cuba as he drove his fancy BMW coup'e, Slusovice's fields in central Czechoslovakia yield 50 percent more grain a hectare than the national average and its cows nearly three times as much milk per animal.
``We are the wave of the future,'' said Mr. Cuba. ``By 1989, the entire economy should be working like us.''
Czechoslovakia, historically one of the most industrialized East European countries, has been the country suffering most in recent years from declining labor productivity and product quality.
Stung by the the Soviet invasion that ended the 1968 Prague Spring, the Czechoslovak leadership has clung to the old central planning model.
But that is changing now. A few weeks ago, President Gustav Husak announced ambitious plans to follow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's example and ``restructure'' the economy.
How far this restructuring actually will go remains to be seen. In a meeting with the foreign press, Jaromir Matejek, the secretary of the economic reform committee, offered an assessment filled with apparent contradictions.
On the one hand, he said managers will be able to ``choose their own production factors, and their own method of supply and selling.'' They will be able to vary worker pay, to export directly instead of through a bureaucratic export agency, and to invest their profits more or less as they see fit, instead of returning them to the state.
On the other hand, Mr. Matejek outlined strict limits. Private enterprise will not be encouraged. Managers will not have power to lay off workers nor, in the immediate future, even to set their product's prices. Matejek said most consumer prices will stay at the present level until at least 1989.
``Restructuring is going to be a long, difficult process,'' Matejek said, adding, in a clear reference to the 1968 disaster, ``we remember our experience with earlier reforms.''
At the Slusovice farm, Cuba managed to create a model by overcoming such concerns through drive and good ideas. An agricultural scientist, Cuba started Slusovice's transformation during the reforms of the 1960s, and unlike other managers, he continued his reforms in the stultifying post-1968 atmosphere.
First, he integrated 15 backward villages tucked among the hills of south Moravia into one 5,000 hectare farm. He threw away outdated machinery and lured highly trained specialists by offering them nice houses with gardens, well-stocked shops, and of course, higher pay.
Cuba's management techniques, by Czechoslovak standards, are innovative. Each part of the farm is financially autonomous. Each department manager decides for himself how to invest his profits. Truck drivers pay for their own gas and look after their own vehicles. If they conserve fuel and keep the vehicle up, they receive bonuses.
``People come here to get things done,'' said biologist Karel Zeleny. Trained at the prestigious Charles University in Prague, Mr. Zeleny said in fluent English that he can best pursue his research on enzymes in rural Slusovice.
``Here our new lab is built and ready in two years,'' he said, showing off his spotless new facility. ``Anywhere else in Czechoslovakia, the proposal still would be on paper.''
Spreading Slusovice-style speed to the rest of Czechoslovakia will be difficult. It means motivating managers to take risks, closing down inefficient factories, and encouraging individual initiative - actions and qualities difficult to sustain politically in this conservative country.
At the Zetor Tractor factory in the Moravian capital of Brno, manager Pavel Smid spoke of formidable opposition. Although Mr. Smid forsees merit pay, direct exporting, and production of a new model tractor, he worries that these efforts could be blocked by less efficient parts suppliers and inbred bureaucracy.
``We are surrounded by conservative forces,'' he complained. ``All the people who have privileges now are afraid to give them up.''
This concern is illustrated at the Svit Shoe Factory, an antiquated-looking, smoke-bellowing plant in nearby Gottwaldov. Originally home to the famous Bata shoe company, the factory now produces shoes of such low quality that Soviet importers rejected large numbers of them last year.
When asked what he would do to improve the situation, Cuba said, ``replace at least a third of the production with electronics.'' That plan brought a scowl from Frantisek Kubis, the Gottwaldov District Communist Party chief, who was listening. ``We will never accept unemployment,'' he said.
Nor will party ideologues accept private enterprise. Over dinner at the Slusovice Hotel, Pavel Cmolit, the Slusovice party chief, argued, ``People here don't want to take on the responsibility.''
In an attempt to prove his point, he picked out a waiter and asked him: ``Would you want to have all the problems of running this restaurant yourself?''
The waiter didn't flinch. ``Yes,'' he said.
Party leader Cmolit persisted, outlining the full weight of ownership responsibilities. Once again, the waiter didn't flinch.
``Yes,'' he said. ``I would like to have my own restaurant.''