| HAVANA, June 1
HAVANA, June 1 Cuba opened its first wholesale
market for farmers in decades on Sunday, an experiment limited
to agricultural supplies in one area and the latest
market-oriented reform for the communist-run island.
While Cuba has allowed nearly 500,000 small business owners
and their employees to operate privately and hundreds of
thousands of farmers to grow their own crops, it has been slow
to give them access to wholesale markets.
Even though the farming sector has been the most
liberalized, Cuba continues to import more than 60 percent of
its food, in part because farmers still depend on state-run
allocation and distribution of subsidized supplies. Official
output has not significantly increased since the reforms began
six years ago.
But as of Sunday, farmers on the Isle of Youth, home to
60,000 people off the southwest coast of the main Caribbean
island, can purchase unsubsidized supplies on demand.
Since President Raul Castro took over from ailing brother
Fidel in 2008, fallow state lands have been leased, and farmers
are freer to sell directly to consumers.
The reforms have also gained the attention of business
leaders in the United States, even though U.S. companies are
largely banned from trading with Cuba.
A delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce visited Cuba
last week, calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo and
urging the government to deepen and accelerate the reforms.
Cuban economist Armando Nova has argued for years that
farmers need to be allowed to buy their own supplies and sell on
an open market.
"Agriculture is cyclical. You need to close the cycle for
reforms to work and now that means the inputs," Nova said.
Life-long farmer Ibrain Vibes, 43, who inherited his land in
Artemisa province just west of Havana, was skeptical.
"The reforms are one thing and all the regulations are
another. It feels like the earth keeps moving under our feet.
Nothing works like they say it will," he said.
Vibes complained a government crackdown on black market fuel
was forcing him to buy it at the retail price of $4.50 per
gallon. Otherwise he would lose the acres of malanga, a tuber
staple of the Cuban diet, he had been cultivating for months.
Another Artemisa farmer, who asked to be identified only as
Carlos, looked down the pages of herbicides, pesticides,
fertilizers and other products now on sale on the Isle of Youth
as he sat in his brand new house, the largest by far in the
neighborhood, a vintage Ford truck with a rebuilt motor outside.
He said that thanks to reforms he was earning more money
transporting food for fellow farmers than from his farm, but was
at home because he could not find reasonably priced fuel.
"This list looks good, but let's see what's really available
in three months and what happens when the experiment goes
nationwide," he said. "Besides, they didn't include the most
important agricultural input, diesel fuel."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Adams)