September 17, 2018 / 4:04 PM / a month ago

Cuban agriculture faces another hard year as produce sales drop

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba moved nearly 15 percent less produce through domestic markets during the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in 2017, signaling another bad year for its agricultural sector, according to a government report.

FILE PHOTO: Farmers Wilber Sanchez, 30, and Dusniel Pacheco, 32, sell corn to an army officer on the highway near San Antonio de los Banos in Artemjsa province, Cuba, April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/File Photo

The market sales in the report, issued over the weekend, account for 10 percent to 15 percent of agricultural output, according to a local expert, who requested anonymity due to restrictions on talking with journalists.

The remainder of food production is earmarked for processing plants, tourism, exports, a rationing system and meals at workplaces, hospitals, schools and other social uses, he said.

The country is dotted with outdoor markets and kiosks, more than 70 percent of which are state-run and have fixed prices for many items.

The report is the first this year on agriculture and indicates Hurricane Irma, which devastated the country a year ago, and unseasonable rainfall during the first months of 2018 took a toll on the sector, which has stagnated for a decade.

More than 60 percent of Cuban produce is harvested from January through June.

The National Statistics Office report said 237,000 tonnes of produce such as potatoes, plantains, tomatoes, mangos, rice and beans moved through the markets, compared with 277,000 tonnes during the same period in 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Farmers pick tomatoes near San Antonio de los Banos in Artemjsa province, Cuba, April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/File Photo

Sales of pork and other meats were up nearly 6 percent to 7,400 tonnes, but the availability of eggs, a critical source of protein in the country, fell dramatically, according to the report (bit.ly/2MDVLX4).

Irma destroyed numerous chicken farms.

Cuba imports more than 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually.

The communist-run country is currently squeezed for cash and has slashed imports by 25 percent since 2015.

The state owns 80 percent of the land and leases most of that to farmers and cooperatives. The remainder is owned by family farmers.

The government often blames bad weather and the U.S. trade embargo for poor production, while critics charge it is due to a lack of private property and foreign investment, rickety infrastructure and a Soviet-style command economy.

Cuba’s government under former President Raul Castro began leasing land, decentralizing decision-making and introducing market mechanisms into the sector a decade ago. But the state has backtracked on the reforms, once more assigning resources, setting prices and controlling most distribution.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took office this year, has not changed that policy.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Paul Simao

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