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Cuban leader looks to boost food production

  • Story Highlights
  • Cuba imports 80 percent of its food; officials hope to lower that number
  • Half of state-owned land is unused or underused, state television reports
  • Farmers can now buy implements and work more land for profit
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From Bureau Chief Morgan Neill
CNN
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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- President Raśl Castro has moved quickly since taking the reins of power from his ailing brother, Fidel, last year to boost food production by putting more land into the hands of profit-earning farmers.

Government officials hope that, with more land into production, the nation would need to import less food.

Just east of the capital, Jose Luis Silva grows cabbage, corn and plantains on a small plot, one that he would like to see expanded.

"I'd work it, and I'd work it well," he said. "It would solve their problem, and it would solve mine."

When he says "their problem," he is referring to Cuba's disastrous state-run agriculture industry. Cuba imports about 80 percent of the food it rations to the public. Additionally, state-run television reports that half of the country's state-owned land is either unused or underused.

A thorny bush called marabu fills many of the unused fields and has become a symbol for the failure of agriculture. Last year, Raśl Castro himself bitterly joked about how much of it he could see along the highway.

Now, changes are under way.

Farmers can buy tools like machetes, hoes and metal sharpeners rather than requesting them through a long, bureaucratic process.

The president of Cuba's Small Farmers' Association says a more important change is occurring: The Communist government has begun to allow for-profit farmers to work large amounts of land. Video Watch changes in the way Cuba runs farms »

Phil Peters, a public policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, says that change represents an admission that past policies have failed.

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"When Raśl Castro gave his first major speech to the Cuban people last July, he ridiculed the bureaucracy that shackles the agriculture sector," he said. "And he ridiculed the lack of productivity, and he didn't mince many words. So, yeah, they are admitting that large parts of the agriculture sector aren't working and they've got to shake it up."

Farmers like Silva just hope these changes will mean a chance to earn a better living. But the government's recognition that those working for profit are the most productive could mean other reforms are on the way. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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