Cuban farmers meet land ownership opportunity with a shrug

The government has voted in favor of the right to own private property but farmers don't expect big gains. The changes are part of a broader shift away from a Soviet-style economy as Cuba tries to woo foreign investment, boost growth, and cut dependence on costly food imports.  

Enrique De La Osa/Reuters/File
A man pushes his cart with vegetables and fruits at a private wholesale market in Havana, on March 26, 2013. On July 22, Cuba’s government voted in favor of a draft for a new constitution that includes the right to own private property. With the country importing around 60 percent of its food, and private farmers outperforming state farms on a fraction of the land, the government is systematically deregulating the sector.

Cuba's decision to change its constitution and allow private property ownership has been shrugged off by small farmers, who says the island will never feed itself without far broader reform of state-run agriculture.

Economists would expect farmers to welcome the shift towards private property after decades of strict government control left the island dependent on food imports and farmers unable to earn a decent living.

And though older Cubans are wary of change, younger farmers have indeed welcomed the recent reforms to recognize private property ownership, even if few expect huge dividends.

With 30 hectares of well-maintained guava trees, sweet potato plants, and concrete pig pens, Alexei Gonzales has a deep desire to buy the farmland he currently rents from the state.

But a complex web of bureaucracy – be it currency controls, fuel shortages, or a lack of private credit – mean Mr. Gonzales and six other farmers who spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation do not expect to reap big gains from owning their own land.

"Making it easier to buy land won't really change much if I can't get diesel," said Gonzales, pointing to his idle Soviet-made tractor. "They [lawmakers] give lots of speeches but nothing changes.... My whole life is working on the land, and I have nothing to show for it."

On July 22, Cuba’s government voted in favor of a draft for a new constitution that includes the right to own private property. The reforms were presided over by Miguel Diaz-Canel, who became Cuba’s president in April, replacing brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, who had governed the island since 1959.

The changes are part of a broader shift as Cuba tries to woo foreign investment, boost growth, and cut poverty, all while keeping political control in the hands of a single party.

Rich soil, slim pickings

Despite rich soil and 20 percent of its population working in agriculture, Cuba imports more than 60 percent of its food, at an annual cost of about $2 billion.

Cubans, who on average earn about $30 a month, receive a monthly package of subsidized food from the state, including rice, beans, eggs, and milk for young children.

To make up for shortfalls at state-run stores – which worsened after the collapse of its Soviet benefactor – Cubans were encouraged to grow urban gardens or cultivate small plots of land for personal consumption.

Today, Cubans can buy food from market stalls, but workers who earn the minimum government salary often cannot afford the bananas, plantain, and pork sold in the private sector.

Prior to the constitutional changes approved by lawmakers last month, the state owned about 80 percent of Cuba's farmland, leasing most of it to farmers and cooperatives.

The rest is owned by small farmers whose families received allotments from the government after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

With sluggish economic growth, and renewed tensions with Washington hampering foreign investment, the government is eager to wean Cuba's 11 people million off costly food imports.

The constitutional change allowing for private land ownership still needs to pass a referendum, to be held some time in coming months. The draft document will be submitted for public consultations and the final document, which could include changes, will then be put to a national referendum.

The reforms will help food production but private property rights alone will not give agricultural output a substantial boost, said Mario Gonzalez-Corzo, an economics professor at City University of New York, whose family own farms in Cuba.

In other countries, farmers can use their land as collateral for loans to buy equipment, seeds, or fertilizer.

"Private ownership does not mean you can use land as collateral: in Cuba, there is no such thing as a private bank," Professor Gonzalez-Corzo said, so the reforms will not make it easier for farmers to buy the fuel or fertilizer they crave.

Price controls on how much farmers get for their products and other strict rules compound the inefficiencies, he added.

"The government has extensive control over agriculture, which creates massive distortions."

Fallow fields

Yasmany Falcon Bacallao farms 26 hectares in Matanzas, Cuba's second largest province and home to the tourist hotspot of Varadero.

Living the inefficiencies on a daily basis, he supports private property reforms, but is not optimistic they will change his daily reality in the fields.

Much of the land inherited from family members lies fallow; he cannot find workers willing to accept $20 per month to toil in the fields or enough diesel to run his farm machinery.

Mr. Bacallao sells most of his produce to a government agency, "but often they don't even have boxes for the mangoes when they arrive, so I can't sell anything," he said.

Cuba's National Association of Small Farmers, a government-linked body responsible for agriculture, declined requests for interviews or additional information about the changes.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Cuba declined to comment on the proposed reforms, underlining the sensitivity of the issue in the socialist state.

Generational shift

While young farmers tend to support greater private property rights, in principle at least, older Cubans are skeptical.

"I don't want to see the big time selling of land," said 82-year-old Miguel Barroz Lozano, sitting on the porch of the farmhouse he inherited in 1962.

"I was here before the revolution and it's better for farmers now," said the fruit grower, recounting how his father had toiled on a plantation owned by a rich, absentee owner.

Unease about possible exploitation has caused the government to move slowly with reform, said John Finn, a professor who studies Cuban agriculture at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

"Land reform was massively important for the ideology of the revolution," Professor Finn said. "They [officials] are trying to maintain the broad structures of a socialist economy, while harvesting the obvious power of entrepreneurship."

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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