AGUAS CLARAS, Cuba
Cuba's leaders are counting on Alberto Romero's eight cows to help turn around the island's struggling socialist economy. Private farmers like Romero, who belongs to a 219-member cooperative near the eastern city of Holguin, were overshadowed for years by Cuba's emphasis on large state farms. But the government recently began handing out idle state land to private farmers across the island in an effort to boost food production. "The government has put its faith in us, and we will show what we are capable of," said Romero, whose 20-acre plot has been in his family for 103 years.
Cuba is hoping that private farmers can literally plow the island out of a huge $11 billion trade deficit this year caused by rising food import costs and falling exports. The policy marks a major shift away from inefficient state farms that once occupied the lion's share of the island's agricultural land.
"The land is there! Here are the Cubans. Let's see if we work or not, if we produce or not!" exclaimed President Rául Castro last month at a rally in Holguin.
Castro has made raising food production a national security priority, noting that the area of cultivated land fell 33 percent from 1997 to 2008. He told the crowd in Holguin that Cuba's poor agricultural output could not be blamed on the U.S. economic embargo alone.
"It's not a question of shouting, 'Homeland or death, down with imperialism, the embargo hurts us.' The land is there, waiting for our sweat."
Despite being an agricultural nation with plentiful sun, soil and rain, Cuba produces barely 30 percent of the food it needs, due to an acute lack of resources and the inefficiency of its state farm sector. About 250,000 small family farms and 1,100 cooperatives till only about one-quarter of the land, yet still manage to outperform the state farms, producing almost 60 percent of crops and livestock, according to official figures.
"The last 50 years have shown that private farmers are more socialist than the state. State farms are antisocialist. The only thing they socialized is loss-making," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former state economic adviser who is now a vocal critic of the government.
Since the redistribution of farmland began last year, Cuba says 110,000 people have submitted applications and about 80 percent have been granted, totaling 1.7 million acres. But the new program has been slow to get going. Three devastating hurricanes last year wiped out vast swaths of productive farmland.
Though milk production has risen significantly, overall agricultural production fell by 7.3 percent in the first quarter of 2009, and meat production fell by 14.7 percent.
While it may be too early to judge the results of the program, analysts say it is running into familiar problems.
"There is too much control and bureaucracy that hinders everything," Espinosa Chepe said. "It's impregnated with a 50-year-old operating method that is built on taking orders and is not used to decentralization.
"There need to be more incentives," he said.
Private farmers and cooperatives manage their own land but must sell part of their produce to the state at government prices, which are generally half the market value. Private farmers also lack direct access to equipment and tools, as well as fertilizer and pesticides, all controlled by the state.
Opening the farm sector to more foreign capital would help Cuba acquire new technology and markets, analysts say. But Cuba complains that the U.S. embargo limits its access to foreign capital, as well as cheap pesticides and heavy farm equipment.
Javier Pérez, 40, a plantain grower near Guanabacoa, welcomes the state's rekindled interest in private farmers.
"We were a bit forgotten about in the past," he said.
He earns good money selling to farmers' markets in Havana after he meets his government quota. In return, the state provides him with subsidized fertilizer and irrigation equipment. The adjacent land he recently obtained from the state will help him raise his production by 25 percent more. Less regulation would be better, he agrees.
"The more independent you are, the more you push yourself," he said. "Why work harder if you don't get any benefit?"
Cuba's state-run newspaper Granma recently added its weighty voice to the farm debate, highlighting the success of a 100-acre cooperative farm in Bejucal, about 25 miles south of Havana.
"If the worker is not content in his job and you don't pay him for his results, you don't achieve anything," cooperative president Lázaro Hernández told the paper, saying he paid his 20 employees 780 pesos a month ($32.50), more than twice the average national wage. Their wages, and share of produce, increase if they exceed production targets.
"If the salary is fixed, the worker will just show up and do his day's work, but he won't be interested in getting the most out of it. If he has a percentage, it all changes," he said.
Such quasi-free-market language wasn't heard much in Cuba until recently. But Rául Castro has shown a pragmatic streak on economic matters, trying to improve state efficiency. In July 2008 he surprised many by advocating a shift away from the orthodox socialist concept of equal pay, arguing that those who were more productive should be paid more.
Romero is optimistic. In eight years, his cooperative hopes to increase its milk output almost tenfold. But to do that, he cautioned, they need state help to buy expensive cereal feed, as well as seeds for better pasture. Artificial insemination would also improve their herds.
"If we don't achieve it, we will be really close," Romero said, raising a glass of aliñao, a homemade liquor of sugarcane and fruit. "We have to keep the revolution moving forward. There is no turning back."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.