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What Fidel Castro — and everyone else — knows is broken.
Another widely recognized failure of the Cuban model — and a potential source of new jobs — is the island’s woeful agricultural sector. Cuba imports roughly 70 percent of its food, creating a huge financial burden for the government, which guarantees a basic ration with about two weeks’ worth of food for every man, woman and child on the island, regardless of income.
To boost local production, Raul Castro began giving out idle state-owned land two years ago to enterprising Cubans willing to try their hand at farming. Since then, the government has approved the applications of more than 100,000 “usufructarios” who receive free, 10-year leases on the land. After selling a portion of their harvest to the government at state-set prices, the farmers can sell the rest of their produce at a profit.
The program has yet to deliver the production growth that the Castro government has hoped for, and farmers say there are still too many restrictions on where they can sell and to whom. Tractors, fertilizer and farming implements remain scarce, and the government needs to make those basic tools more available, critics say.
But throughout the Cuban countryside, there are also encouraging signs of change.
On the outskirts of the town of Bejucal, 20 miles south of Havana, 47-year-old Lorenzo Ramos received a five-acre plot last year and went to work as a farmer. His land was strewn with trash, having been used for years as an informal dump, and it was choked with the ubiquitous African weed known as marabu.
Ramos went to work with an ax, a machete and an old Soviet-era tractor, and today his plot is lined with fruit tree saplings, sweet potatoes and other crops. A bulldozer crew provided by the government is helping Ramos dig out a fish pond where he plans to raise tilapia.
New reforms announced last month will allow Ramos and others like him to set up fruit-and-vegetable stands where they can sell their wares directly to consumers.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t live,” said Ramos, standing in his fields on a recent afternoon.
The logic echoed his president’s words, but the sentiment was nonetheless new to Cuban socialism. “Someone has to produce things here,” he said. “We have to save this country.”