Reforming Cuban Agriculture: Unfinished Business
In July 2007, Raul Castro put the agricultural sector squarely in his sights in his first major speech as acting President. He noted wryly that on a drive across Cuba he saw abundant idle farmland overgrown with weeds. He ridiculed the agriculture bureaucracy and the government supply chain that stands between food producers and consumers. A general economic improvement, he argued, would require higher productivity, industrial production, foreign investment, and – foreshadowing moves to expand the private sector in agriculture and other sectors – “structural changes and changes of concepts.” Improvement would take time, he said, because “no country has the luxury of spending more than it has.” He quoted his brother Fidel, who said seven years earlier, “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”
In short, Raul Castro began to set the stage for an economic reform process that would begin soon with some small measures then take full form in 2011 when, following extensive discussions and debates in workplaces, neighborhood committees, and Communist Party meetings, a nationwide Communist Party Congress would ratify a blueprint for far-reaching economic policy changes across many sectors.
The agricultural sector is a central part of the reform process. An increase in food supplies could potentially reduce consumer prices, improving purchasing power. A reduction in the agriculture ministry’s personnel – both its direct employees and those that work for the ministry’s enterprises that buy, transport, store, and distribute food – will help reduce government outlays, freeing up resources to maintain the social safety net and to raise the pay of doctors, teachers, and others whose pay is substandard. Higher agricultural production can help reduce Cuba’s nearly $2 billion annual import bill, where one in five dollars is spent on food.
Policy changes affecting agriculture began before the Party Congress and have continued since, the most notable being the distribution of nearly 170,000 parcels of unused state land to private farmers. But apart from a few bright spots, results have been lacking – production has not increased notably, consumer prices are up, and no real dent has been made in the import bill. Agriculture remains both the first big initiative and one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business in Cuba’s economic reform, as debate continues about deeper reforms needed to make this critical sector perform at its potential.