Raul Castro stirs hopes for Cuba farmers

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JARUCO, Cuba, Sep 20 (Reuters) Down on the ranch, the talk among the cattle hands is that help is on its way.

And it could not come sooner for Cuba's state-owned agriculture, where production has slumped for years and weeds are taking over unused fields.

Roasting a pig over a fire amid the dust and flies, ranch manager Manolo sips rum and gazes out over the pastures of the farming cooperative where he has worked for a decade.

''A year ago I sold 22 head of cattle to the state for 18,000 pesos. This year the same number brought more than 60,000,'' he said. That is the equivalent of 2,700 dollars, up from 810 dollars last year.

''Things are moving in the right direction. We have to make unused land produce and we need more resources for that,'' said Manolo, who asked that his last name not be used because of government rules about talking to foreign journalists.

Similar upbeat talk can be heard across Cuba's countryside, spurred by acting president Raul Castro, who has been running the government since his brother, ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, fell ill more than a year ago.

Raul Castro has made agriculture a top priority, stressing the need to produce more food in a country that relies on imports to feed its 11 million people, even from the United States, its ideological foe since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

The younger Castro has doubled and tripled what the state pays for cattle, milk and other farm products, and cut red-tape that often left farmers unpaid and crops to rot.

In a key speech on July 26 in the central agricultural province of Camaguey, Raul Castro called for ''structural and conceptual changes'' in the state-dominated agricultural sector to reverse a decline in output and reduce prices.

''We face the imperative of making our land produce more, and the land is there to be tilled .. we must offer these producers adequate incentives for the work they carry out in Cuba's suffocating heat,'' he said.

Raul's aides are hard at work on a plan with a year-end deadline, Communist party sources report.

THE WITCH'S WEED The workers at Manolo's ranch climb aboard a beat-up 1948 Chevrolet truck to tour their cooperative, called a Basic Unit of Production, where they own everything but the land, which is leased to them by the state free of charge.

Cattle and sheep graze over the low-lying hills, but almost half the land is covered by a prickly brush called ''marabu'' and a waste-high weed that farmers call the ''witch's weed'' because it quickly renders pasture useless.

''We need a bulldozer or at least machetes to cut this down, then herbicide to kill the roots to stop it reappearing,'' said ranch hand as the truck bounced along a dirt road. ''Not even goats can eat the stuff.'' Cuba is emerging from a severe economic crisis triggered by the 1991 collapse of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, and the loss of massive subsidies that resulted in shortages of food, fuel, transportation and capital.

Agricultural inputs, such as seed, fertilizers, pesticides and farm equipment, were cut by 80 per cent.

Cuba's inefficient farm production almost ground to a halt, land fell into disuse and the dreaded ''marabu'' spread.

The weekly economy newspaper Opciones recently reported that ''marabu and other weeds have become a plague in Cuba'' that covers one third of the 3.6 million hectares of arable land.

The closure of half Cuba's sugar mills in 2003 added sugar cane plantations to the vast tracts of unused land and deepened the crisis in agriculture by throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.

THE STATE AS LANDOWNER Cuba has gradually pulled out of its economic crunch with financial help from Venezuela and China, and high prices for its top export commodity, nickel. This has allowed the state to assign resources to upgrade farming infrastructure.

Many Cuban farmers, however, believe that more incentive is needed to turn Cuban agriculture around. Some experts argue that the state should hand land over to the farmers and farming cooperatives if it wants to raise productivity.

Most of the land in Cuba is owned by the state, making it perhaps the largest unproductive landowner in Latin America.

''Here there is land and enough men to produce all the food the country needs,'' said farmer Arsenio Perez in a telephone interview from eastern Santiago de Cuba province.

''The only thing you need now is to bring them together in the best way and you'll see how the land provides all that's missing,'' he said.

After Castro's 1959 revolution, large landowners were stripped of their property (his father's estate was the first to be confiscated). Hundreds of thousands of private holdings of up to 6.5 hectares were allowed, including the growers of the tobacco leaves for Cuba's famous hand-rolled cigars.

But, unlike other socialist countries, the state kept most of the land for itself.

''Small farmers own just 15 percent of the land,'' said sociologist Aurelio Alonso in a discussion on property in the magazine Temas. ''But they produce 60 percent of what we eat.'' REUTERS SZ AS0851

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