Cuba to let farmers sell directly to tourist sector

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban farmers can bypass the state and start selling products directly to businesses catering to tourists, state-run media said on Monday in announcing the latest market-oriented reform in the one of the world’s last communist countries.

Tourists eat at a "Paladar" or home restaurant in the town of Cienfuegos, in central Cuba some 250 kilometres, (155 miles), from Havana January 20, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Communist Party newspaper Granma said the change, which takes effect on December 1, was aimed at improving the variety and quality of food to the tourist sector, cutting transportation costs and reducing food losses that have plagued the country because of inefficiencies in getting farm products to market.

The changes will allow the development of ways to “better take advantage of the potentialities ... at the local scale,” the newspaper said.

Tourism is one of Cuba’s most important sources of foreign exchange, with 2.7 million visitors expected in the Caribbean island this year, but poor food and service are frequently cited as reasons for tourists coming once and not returning.

The new regulations break from the past by reducing the state’s role as the middle-man in getting farm products to the tourist industry and by allowing buyers and sellers to set their own prices.

The changes are some of more than 300 reforms President Raul Castro has proposed or put into action to modernize the island’s moribund Soviet-style economy.

Farmers hailed the measure as a step toward freeing them from the state’s monopoly on farm supplies and food sales which they say hampers output, leads to waste and hurts consumers.

“It is a very important step toward freeing up the sale of agricultural products. I think with less people between us and consumers there will be more food at the market,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, a farmer in the central state of Camaguey, in a telephone interview.

Julio Hernandez, a farmer in eastern Holguin province, said the reform follows others allowing farmers to sell more produce directly to schools, hospitals and street markets.

“Slowly but surely these measures allow us to depend less on the state system and its bureaucratic hitches,” he said.

President Castro, who succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in 2008, is trying to strengthen Cuban communism to ensure its survival once the current generation of leaders is gone. (Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Jackie Frank)