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Cuba expected to turn over new leaf in farming

Reforms are also seen as likely in the oil industry and monetary system in the post-Castro era.

February 21, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Without Fidel Castro as president, Cuba is more likely to launch reforms to boost food production, create oil industry jobs and put more pesos in citizens' pockets, analysts said Wednesday.

Some changes, probably starting with efforts to help farmers, are likely to occur during the next year, some analysts said.

Raul Castro, the president's 76-year-old brother and potential successor, and other Cuban leaders for months have indicated that farmers may receive legal rights to their land and guaranteed market prices for their produce.

Those changes and other economic improvements could happen more quickly following Fidel Castro's announcement Tuesday that he would step down as head of state after nearly half a century running the island nation, analysts said.

"I don't know that Cubans would be expecting something in the next two weeks. But I do think Raul has raised expectations to a degree that they're expecting something in the course of this year," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute think tank near Washington.

With food production pitifully low for a country with fertile land and a year-round growing climate, farmers need more land and more autonomy in tilling it to boost output. Cuba imports at least 70% of its food, including a record $437-million worth from the United States last year.

Many Cuban farms have antiquated cultivation equipment. Donkeys and oxen are as visible in rural areas as tractors and combines.

Especially in the fields of agriculture and foreign investment, reform can and should be embraced swiftly, said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-born lawyer and Bay of Pigs veteran who has spent the last 15 years working to repair relations between Cubans in the U.S. and those in Cuba.

"They haven't talked as much about it, but I think they may also reverse the elimination of self-employment and allow more paladares [private restaurants] and other small business," Zamora said.

Fidel Castro, 81, has long opposed anything that smacks of private enterprise or disproportionately enriches one group of Cubans. But his brother and lifelong No. 2, who began leading the country when Fidel fell ill and temporarily ceded power to him 19 months ago, has been speaking openly about the need to stimulate agricultural output by turning land back to those who want to work it and boost their living standards by the sweat of their brows.

The elder Castro has been disparaging much of the talk of open produce markets and ethanol production from sugar cane. But in one of his periodic "reflections" on life, he vowed to be careful and conciliatory in expressing his opinions, leading analysts to conclude that he will try not to micromanage his successors.

Cuba's leaders are considered protective of Castro's legacy, which includes providing free healthcare and education, even as critics point to constraints on political dissent and personal freedoms.

"But for that legacy to survive, they need to have a working economy in Cuba -- not for the sake of the global economy, but for the people of Cuba," said Zamora, who travels to the island nation every few months to analyze investment opportunities for clients across Latin America.

Jorge Pinon, an energy analyst with the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy and a retired oil industry executive, agreed that agriculture is the most likely first reform target. The country must also address its monetary system, which has created a class divide between those Cubans with access to U.S. dollars and those without, he said.

Opportunities to draw more investment in oil exploration and nickel mining have also emerged, Pinon said. Those industries, he said, could provide more lucrative employment to Cubans than the state-run factories and enterprises currently paying workers less than $20 a month.

Castro vacillated over the decades in his insistence that capitalism be fully exorcised from his country, says Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a Cuban-born University of Central Florida history professor writing a book about Castro's revolution.

Necessity forced him to allow some private shops and services to emerge in the early 1990s, as well as to allow Cubans abroad to send dollar remittances to family on the island, Martinez-Fernandez said.

"If we want to maintain the gains of the revolution, the best way is to have a gradual transition, one that is peaceful and one that is controlled from the top and controlled by Cubans," he said.

An opportunity now exists for Cuba's leaders to step back and rethink their development course and how best to protect the gains of the revolution, added Martinez-Fernandez.

"We have two very stubborn world leaders who have been intransigent with each other for a long time: George W. Bush and Fidel Castro. But in a few months neither of them will be in power," said the professor. "The moment is very auspicious."

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