Cuba cedes to farmers right to purchase supplies

HAVANA Mon May 17, 2010 2:28am EDT

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's private farmers will purchase supplies directly in future instead of having them allocated by the state, the government said on Sunday, in the latest concession to their demands for more autonomy.

Economy Minister Marino Murillo made the announcement at the close of a congress of Cuba's 350,000 family farmers and members of private cooperatives, the largest private sector in the communist country where the state controls most economic activity.

The farmers, who account for 70 percent of the food produced in Cuba using just 41 percent of the land, had pushed for more freedom to sell their produce and obtain supplies during meetings across the country before the congress.

At issue are regulations guaranteeing the state's near monopoly of the agricultural system through a long-standing practice of contracting for 75 percent of farmers' production in return for fuel, pesticides, fertilizer and other supplies.

The government had approved plans to modernize the economy and "create in the majority of municipalities supply markets where farmers can acquire directly the necessary resources to produce, substituting the current system of assigning resources centrally," Murillo said.

He said there were no plans to eliminate the state's monopoly on food sales. But, various farmers and cooperatives spoke during the congress about how they were selling more of their products directly to consumers and institutions such as schools and hospitals with positive results.

Raul Castro, who attended the closing session of the congress, has made food security his signature issue since taking over the presidency from older brother Fidel Castro two years ago. The semi-tropical island imports 60 percent of its consumed food, a huge burden on its fragile economy.

Castro has boosted what the state pays for produce, leased state lands to farmers, decentralized decision-making and allowed some farmers to sell a small part of their produce directly to consumers at fixed prices.

The reforms spurred production last year of bumper crops of tomatoes, garlic and other food, but that has not happened this year.

In meetings before the congress, farmers said recent production has fallen, partly because the state did not provide fertilizer and pesticides on time. It also failed to get all of their produce to market the past two years, they said.

Government statistics indicate that sugar, coffee and citrus production are at all-time lows, and non-sugar agriculture was down 13 percent through March.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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