Cuban food output down despite agriculture reforms
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's food production fell 7.5 percent in the first half of the year despite reforms instituted by President Raul Castro and even as the Communist-run country cut food imports, the government reported this week.
The report was not a surprise to Cuban consumers who have complained of shortages all year, particularly in staples such as rice and beans, which were down 1.7 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
The National Statistics Office reported on its web page www.one.cu that, from January through June, there was a decline in just about all types of food production -- from rice, potatoes, malanga and other vegetables to pork and eggs.
Production of a few items rose, including yucca, milk, non-citrus fruits and bananas.
The government has repeatedly said it would begin cutting food imports this year, though no data was available. Vietnam, the island's main rice supplier, announced when the year began that Cuba had reduced orders by 100,000 tons for 2010.
Overall agriculture production is below 2005 levels, according to the government, even though Castro has made increasing food output a priority since taking over for older brother Fidel Castro more than two years ago.
Cuba is in the throes of a financial crisis in part because it spends heavily to import two-thirds of its food.
"It is not easy to find root vegetables and rice is scarce, making matters worse, especially at the end of the month when the ration is used up," Margarita, a retiree who did not want her full name used, said in a telephone interview from eastern Holguin province.
Santiago de Cuba housewife Olga Machado said things were not much better in Cuba's second largest city.
"The biggest problem is that everything seems to come and go, forcing you to dedicate a great deal of time to guarantee there is food at home," she said.
Sugar production was not included in the report but this year's sugar harvest was the worst in more than a century, resulting in a 20 percent cut in the rationed sugar quota of five pounds per month.
The country maintains a World War Two-style food ration that provides the bare-bones basics for a few weeks, after which residents must shop at state-run markets.
President Castro has raised prices the state pays for produce, leased state lands to farmers, decentralized decision making, allowed provincial producers to sell more of their produce directly to consumers and reorganized huge state farms and cooperatives that occupy 60 percent of the land.
However, a decades-old system where the state provides fuel, pesticides, fertilizer and other resources to farmers in exchange for 70 percent of what they produce remains unchanged and often holds back production.
In a speech on Sunday to the National Assembly, Castro blamed administrative errors and a continuing drought for the production shortfalls. He ruled out market solutions as being too capitalist.
Many farmers and farm experts think Castro will have to make bigger changes if he wants more food production.
"Until the state frees up farmers to own outright the land, sell directly what they produce and purchase what they need to do it, production will not significantly improve," said a local agriculture expert, asking his name not be used.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Bill Trott)