HAVANA The United Nations envoy on the right to food praised Cuba on Tuesday for feeding its people adequately but said he saw the need for agricultural reforms to reduce the country's dependence on food imports.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler said communist-run Cuba had the best record among developing countries in ensuring no one went hungry, despite U.S. trade sanctions and economic crisis endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"We cannot say that the right to food is totally respected in Cuba, but we have not seen a single malnourished person," he said at a news conference at the end of a 10-day visit.
Ziegler said Cuba was engrossed in a national debate opened by acting President Raul Castro on how to improve agricultural output to cut imports in the face of rising world food prices.
He said a reform plan could be adopted in months that would most likely increase the scope of private cooperatives at the expense of state farms to raise productivity.
"We heard the people want free markets for more products other than vegetables," he said.
The visit by Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist, was the first by a U.N. rights rapporteur to Cuba in almost a decade. He was invited by Havana after the new U.N. Human Rights Council, of which Cuba is a member, decided in June to stop the scrutiny of human rights abuses in Cuba.
The Cuban government, led by Raul Castro since his brother Fidel Castro fell ill last year, saw Ziegler's visit as turning the page on 16 years of criticism by the former U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Ziegler said his visit was a sign that Cuba was willing to cooperate on human rights with the new U.N. body and would pave the way for visits by other rapporteurs.
The Geneva-based council appoints outside experts as independent rapporteurs who are assigned countries or subjects and given wide latitude in their reports.
Ziegler visited two prisons near Havana but gave no details of what he saw. He said his brief was to report on how the inmates were fed and watered.
Cuban does not allow the International Red Cross to visit its jails, where human rights groups say some 250 political prisoners live in "subhuman" conditions that include rotten food and undrinkable water.