HAVANA (Reuters) - Agriculture in Cuba remains in crisis and the country is still dependent on imports five years into Raul Castro's presidency and efforts to reform the sector, according to a government report released this week.
The communist-run nation is investing in some crops to reduce imports and others to boost exports, even as it gradually loosens the state's grip on all food production and distribution in favor of individual initiative and the law of the market.
Cash-strapped Cuba imports some 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually, mainly bulk cereals and grains such as rice, corn, soy and beans, as well as other items such as powdered milk and chicken.
Last year, $500 million of the imports came from the United States under an exception to the trade embargo that allows agricultural sales for cash.
Unprocessed rice production was up almost 50 percent at 642,000 tonnes in 2012, compared with 436,000 tonnes in 2008 when Castro stepped in for his ailing brother Fidel, and production of beans rose during the same period by 28 percent to 127,000 tonnes, the only significant progress reported.
Cuba and Brazil have been working for a number of years to grow soy for the first time on the Caribbean island, alternating the crop with corn. But there was no mention of soy in the report by the National Statistics Office (www.one.cu/aec2012.htm), and corn production increased by just 30,000 tonnes to 360,000 tonnes during the five-year period.
Castro has decentralized decision making, leased vacant land to 180,000 would-be farmers, allowed all agricultural producers to sell more of their goods on the open market (47 percent in 2012) and raised the prices the state pays for produce. Yet tonnage for root and garden vegetables and bananas and plantains has stagnated at around 5 million tonnes.
The state owns 80 percent of the land and leases 70 percent of that to farmers and cooperatives. The other 20 percent of land is owned by private family farmers and their cooperatives and produces a far higher percentage of the nation's food.
Export crops, from coffee and citrus to tobacco and sugar cane declined over the last five years, according to the report.
Livestock fared no better with most categories either stagnating or declining, except milk, which increased by 8 percent to 604,000 tonnes.
During the period three major hurricanes hit Cuba, where less than 10 percent of the farm land has adequate irrigation and drainage.
In a paper delivered at a local economic conference earlier this year, Cuban economist Armando Nova said farmers should be able to purchase supplies at will, instead of having to wait for them to be assigned and delivered by the state.
"You have to free up the entire production cycle, not just parts of it," Nova said.
The first wholesale produce market run by a cooperative instead of the state opened this month. Castro's point man for reform, Marino Murillo, told parliament that the government would launch a pilot project on the Isla de la Juventud, just off the southwest coast, where farmers could directly purchase fertilizer and other supplies.
Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown and Christopher Wilson