Cuba's Capitalist Mini-Revolution Taking Root

ALESANDRO TERRAZ stands over his table of various cuts of pork and sings the praises of Cuba's farmers' markets.

"I come every 15 days or so with a pig, and I stay until I sell it all," says the farmer from a small family pig farm six miles west of Havana.

"Prices go up and down depending on supply and demand, but my personal income is up about half in the three months I've been coming to the market," he says. "Things are much better."

"No, they're not much better," a woman interjects energetically, who will only identify herself as Maria Theresa. "Sure the farmers are happy because the prices they are charging are sky-high," she says.

"But my husband makes 300 pesos [about $7.50] a month" as a government administrator, "so do you think I can afford pork ribs" at 35 pesos [about 88 cents] a pound?

"All I can afford is this," she says, holding aloft a small sack of peppers and onions. "This and a little rice is what I have to make today's meal with. I'm not sure I can call that progress."

Farmers boost their wealth

Welcome to Cuba's farmers' markets, introduced last October in an attempt to get farmers to produce more and thus help solve the island's chronic food shortages.

The idea, tinged with capitalistic thinking, is this: Farmers, whether working private family plots, cooperatives, or state farms, still have a production quota to turn over to the government. But whatever they produce over that quota can be sold in the new farmers' markets - at whatever price the market will bear - and the farmer keeps the profit.

Actually, it's not a new idea. Other Communist countries, including China, have introduced similar markets, and their farmers have experienced marked economic improvement. And Cuba had farmers' markets in the early 1980s.

But they were abruptly closed in 1986 when Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz accused farmers and their market middlemen of immoral enrichment at the expense of Cuban families. Now Cuba's need for higher food production and a desire to cut short the black market have overruled scruples over whether farmers will boost their wealth.

This time around, the results, as the above conversation suggests, are mixed. Farmers almost universally report producing more and earning much more in the eight months since the program was introduced.

A sausage - a day's wage

But food shoppers, while expressing satisfaction with the renewed variety of foods the markets offer, say prices remain too high for the low salaries of most Cubans.

At a market in Havana's old commercial center, one six-inch chorizo sausage or half a watermelon costs eight pesos (20 cents) - the daily wage of a better-than-average Cuban salary.

"I'm doing well, but I don't know how the customers manage," says Junai Harces, a 16-year-old chorizo vendor who makes about 800 pesos ($20) a month - more than the average doctor's salary.

Cubans say the quality of foods offered has risen since the competitive markets opened. Yet while the Havana markets are generally well-stocked, those in the provinces often close just a few hours after opening because of a lack of products.

That is partly because the farmers are offered incentives to sell in Havana. The government wants to make sure food shortages do not lead to social tension in the capital, some observers claim.

The government acknowledges that the markets have not solved the food-supply problem, nor are they the panacea to Cuba's agricultural crisis. But they say production increases indicate that agricultural reforms are headed in the right direction.

"We still face production shortages, but the increases we are seeing tell us we're on the right path," says Juan Jose Leon, director of international relations at Cuba's Agriculture Ministry. Farm production is up 23 percent in the first quarter of this year over the same period a year ago, with production of potatoes, cabbage, and tomatoes making particular gains.

The markets sold more than $1 billion pesos ($25 million) in products through May 10, Mr. Leon says - providing the government with 85 million pesos ($2,125,000) in taxes.

The state still holds more than 90 percent of Cuba's farmland. But farmers are being granted free use of a expanding portion of state land, many grouped in farming cooperatives, in exchange for higher production.

Visiting a cooperative

The Roberto Fernandez cooperative outside Cardenas, about

2 1/2 hours from Havana, offers a picture of the tentative progress Cuba has made in meeting its food needs - and of the distance it still has to go.

Once largely a sugar plantation, the cooperative now produces a variety of foods ranging from corn and rice to cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, papayas, and bananas. Production this year should be up about 50 percent over 1994 - a year that marked the lowest level of production in the cooperative's 17 years. But production will still be about 40 percent below its 1990 peak.

"We lack the fertilizers we used to get and spare parts for our equipment," says Ualdo Mirabel, the cooperative's director, recalling the glory days when the former Soviet Union's $8-billion annual subsidy to Cuba kept farm prices high and fertilizers and spare parts coming. "Frankly, we could plant a lot more than what we plant now, but until recently, we haven't had the incentive."

According to Mr. Mirabel, the farmers' markets are helping to change that. "The prices we get in the market are 4 to 5 times what we get for the state's quota, so it's definitely an incentive to produce," he says.

Another problem the cooperative faces in raising production is lack of laborers - a chronic problem in Cuban agriculture. "The higher prices and our higher profit-sharing helped us attract 100 new members last year, but we could still employ 400 more people, or more," says Mirabel.

He says a "good" income, free food, some housing, and other communal services are among the cooperative's attractions.

But in a country where 80 percent of the population is urban, it is easy to see why Cubans avoid returning to the farm. The sun is hot, some of the laborers work in deteriorating shoes, and the lack of mechanized equipment makes work conditions onerous. "Working the fields is brutal," says one veteran farmhand.

Still, Mr. Leon says the higher salaries that accompany implementation of the farmers' markets will entice more Cubans to work the fields. That, he hopes, will help production.

For consumers who complain of high prices, he predicts a gradual fall to more acceptable levels as production increases. Already tomatoes are down from eight pesos to one peso per pound, rice from 25 pesos a pound to eight, and beans from 30 to eight, he says. "These are trends we expect to continue."

That will be good news for Havana's Maria Theresa, who says her family looks forward to when it can afford a pineapple - now prohibitive at eight pesos, she says - to go with the midday meal.

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