Cuba: Are the Changes Beginning?

HAVANA, Cuba – The enactment of the Decree/Law 259, which deals with the turning over of idle lands in usufruct (i.e., the right to use something that belongs to another, in this case land that belongs to the government), could start the process of structural changes announced earlier this year. Apparently, the news divulged by the national press has been received with indifference by the citizenry, perhaps tired and overwhelmed by the continued worsening of their quality of life and repeated frustrations.

The massive handing over of land, especially to individual producers, is evidently proof of the fact that almost 50 years of state run agriculture has ended in a colossal failure, with the ruining of the nation’s agricultural wealth. According to official statistics, currently imports 84% of its required foodstuffs, primarily from the . It is possible that the total cost of buying food from outside of the country to satisfy the necessary rations needed for the population in 2008 could be approximately $2.5 billion USD, due to increased prices on the international market. It represents an exorbitant sum for a country whose annual exports have not exceeded $3 billion USD for a long time.

Therefore, the totalitarian state has had to resort to the participation of individual farmers in order to be able to put more than half of the arable land into production that are currently idle, the majority of which is covered with weeds. Nevertheless, it will be necessary to wait for the publication of the law for the distribution of land, which will be ready next month in August, and to see how the decree/law is executed in order to appreciate the government’s true intentions.

The fact that the idle lands will be turned over in usufruct for ten years to the agriculturalists, successively extendible when it ends for an equal amount of time, and for a period of 25 years to legal persons with an extension for another 25 years, is a demonstrable element of the state’s interest in maintaining control over these producers. These terms demonstrate the priority given to the legal entities – fundamentally the Farming Estates, Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) and the Cooperatives for Agricultural Production (CPA) – in spite of the fact that these state or semi-state organizations were the ones responsible for the agricultural inefficiency that led to more than 50% of the arable land being left idle.

Prior to doing this, the government added a long list of limitations imposed unilaterally, through which it could truncate the agreement on these lands on behalf of the state. In particular, Point C of Article 14 is worrisome: “The termination of the usufruct lands conceded to the agriculturalists for continuing to breach the contract for production levels, which are to be determined by the specialists” (naturally from the government). This implies that under the conditions established by this law there will be obligations built into the contracts for turning over a large share of the production to the State.

Likewise, Point F points out that the turned over land can be taken away; “due to acts that might violate the goal under which the usufruct was granted.” This indicates that the existing practice currently in use obligating the producers to plant and cultivate those things that are in the government’s interests could continue, regardless of the agricultural conditions or the desires of the person cultivating the land in usufruct. From other points, one can derive that the agreement can be terminated by criteria and decisions of the authorities.

The lands being given in usufruct are often received in poor condition and full of weeds, such as marabu, that will have to be cleared and prepared for cultivation through an enormous effort. They will have to absorb the costs of building housing and stables in minimal conditions, along with the purchasing of farm tools and inputs. At bare minimum, the farmers will require guarantees that the government will respect their ‘permanence.’ I should add that the Cuban countryside is depopulated and the percentage of young people is very low, since there is limited interest in dedicating oneself to the life of an agricultural worker. A scenario that will only be able to transform itself through the creation of tangible incentives for the new generations, the first one of which should be an agreement with guarantees that the received lands are permanent.

Furthermore, in a totalitarian state where favoritism has always predominated, there exists the danger that citizens will be discriminated against based on their political ideas. The communists and retired members of the armed forces could and should participate in the process of restructuring the agrarian economy. I think, in respect to these ultimate groups, it would be positive, because the bloated military presence would most likely reduce, providing a great economic relief for the society, and it could harness the utilization of a great proportion of military personnel originally from the countryside that are disciplined and organized. Irregardless, complete transparency would be essential, where the right to receive land is solely based on the willingness to work hard on the part of those that have been given it.

Of course, this measure must be accompanied with the possibility of the farmers acquiring the necessary techniques and inputs; new mechanisms that might prevent, as has been the case for decades, that their crops might not be harvested appropriately and they might lose it; price incentives and the right to have options for selling crops from the harvests with complete freedom; end of the obligation for planting what the state says; credit without interference from organizations like the ANAP, among other essential privileges for an efficient enterprise.

If these elements are missing, the liberty of the campesinos would be restricted and the stimulation for production substantially blocked. In fact, the handing over of the lands in usufruct, with limitations, represents a worrying factor about possible state interference. To be just and correct, the property should be handed over or rented with the option of buying it. That would give the greatest guarantee of permanence of ownership over the land, which would increase the interest of the farmers to work and care for their own property. Over the last 50 years, with the absolute predominance of state agriculture, the remaining small sector of individual campesino farmers, without resources, with many restrictions and afraid of losing their land, was the most productive and profitable. Meanwhile, the majority of the state sector caused a genuine economic disaster, an orgy of non-productivity and inefficiency.

It remains to be seen if the Decree/Law 259 is directed at initiating a real process of transformation in Cuban agriculture, or if it represents another hidden attempt by totalitarianism to confront the grave situation exacerbated by the crisis in state-run agriculture in the moments when the cost of basic foodstuffs are rising incessantly, without weakening the absolute control over the society they have managed for so much time.

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