- Created: Tuesday, 14 April 2009 13:14
- Written by FRFI
Improving access to land and cultivation in Cuba
On 23 November 2008, a collective of workers and farmers in San Agustin in Camaguey province, central-eastern Cuba, celebrated the first official hand-over of land in ‘usufruct’ (as a free loan) with a day of voluntary work in homage to Che Guevara. HELEN YAFFE reports.
13 farmers each received their property titles in return for a commitment to cultivate 12.5 acres of land with vegetables, grains and fruits, as well as breeding cattle and other animals. This is part of a new campaign to give access to currently idle land to Cubans who apply to turn it to production. The producers do not pay rent, nor can they purchase the land, but it is granted in usufruct for ten years to individuals and for 25 years for collectives and cooperatives. The land cannot be sold or transferred to third parties and the new farmers of the land must pay taxes and sell an agreed proportion of their produce to the state at fixed prices.
This measure reflects a drive to increase production – without permanently changing property relations. It does not signify a preference for ‘private’ or decentralised production. This point was underlined by President Raul Castro who, whilst introducing the new law in July 2008, told the National Assembly: ‘I am a firm admirer and defender of large socialist state enterprises, be they agricultural, industrial, or otherwise.’
Low salaries and high food prices are a principal concern for the government and the people in Cuba, as they are for an increasing proportion of the world today, because although the population is protected by highly subsidised state provision covering all necessities, 84% of the basic food basket is imported, according to Magalys Calvo, Vice Minister of Economics (Granma, 26 February 2007). As a result of the dramatic global rise in prices, the volume of food imported in 2007 cost an extra $1.1bn to import in 2008, seriously jeopardising the country’s investment plans. In addition, Cubans augment their ration allowance with produce bought in markets and shops at relatively high prices. In the case of domestic produce, high prices mainly reflect low efficiency in agricultural and manufacturing output. In order for prices to go down, production and productivity must increase.
In July 2008, a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture’s municipal offices calculated that there were over two million hectares (about five million acres) of idle or under-utilised land nationwide. This will change quickly with the new law. In one week in September, 445,347 hectares of land in usufruct were applied for by 34,661 individuals or legal entities throughout the country to exploit free of charge. The vast majority of applications (26,800) were from individuals who have never owned land. They can receive up to 13.42 hectares (about 33 acres) each.
This will provide necessary employment for thousands of highly qualified agronomists who will be needed to support these new farmers with their expertise, potentially taking many of them out of other employment and reincorporating them into the state sector. New farmers will also receive help from the Credit and Service Cooperatives and from the National Association of Small Farmers. Those who hold land that is already in full production can expand their farms to 40 hectares (about 99 acres). 45% of land applications are for dairy-farming, an industry being stimulated with higher prices paid by the state for milk and meat. Another 41% of applicants intend to cultivate diversified crops.
Raising the age of retirement
In December 2008, Cubans will find out the results of a national consultation on proposals to raise the age of retirement by five years – from 60 to 65 years for men and from 55 to 60 years for women – when it is discussed in the National Assembly. The reform under consideration was proposed by Raul Castro in the July meeting of the Assembly, the highest decision-making body in Cuba with over 600 representatives from local areas and different sectors of society.
The current retirement ages relate to the much lower life expectancy for Cubans at the start of the revolutionary process that has transformed their human development indicators. Cuba is now categorised as a ‘high development’ country by the United Nations. The Social Security Law reforms are necessary to cope with an aging population – Cuba has the oldest population in the Americas and it continues to grow annually with rising life expectancy and reduced birth rates. Under current trends, by 2025 a quarter of the population will be over 60 years and there will be 770,000 fewer people of working age than in 2007. The proposal is part of the vital push to dramatically increase national production in order to reduce dependency on imports, whilst increasing exports and lowering domestic prices.
Throughout September and October, 80,000 assemblies were held to discuss the proposal involving 3.4 million workers in work centres throughout the island. The fact that these debates have involved over 30% of the island’s population – 70% of the total workforce – is another demonstration of how a socialist state endeavours to ensure true workers’ democracy. The system contrasts starkly with ours in Britain where, from the Home Office’s National Identity Card Scheme, to mass privatisations, to the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government consistently ignores public opposition to its decisions. Here we are passive subjects, in socialist Cuba they are active citizens!
If approved by the National Assembly in December, the changes will be implemented gradually over the following years. Speaking to a committee of the National Assembly, Social Security Minister Alfredo Morales said he hoped to be able to increase pensions by 20%. This second reform would be implemented alongside the first. Already, a new law introduced in July authorised retired school and university teachers who are able to return to work to receive the full salary, in addition to their pension. This is a provisional measure introduced to bridge the gap until the new retirement ages are implemented. It is also necessary to alleviate pressure on young and inexperienced ‘emergency teachers’, introduced with the decision that class sizes must be cut to a 20 student maximum. The government is also studying ways to increase the birth rates to offset the aging population.
Juventud Rebelde, newspaper of the Union of Young Communists (UJC), pointed out that ‘while in 1970 there were 7.1 active workers in Cuba for each retiree...as of 2007 it had declined to 3.2 to 1 [and] the projection for 2025 is only 2.3 workers for every retiree.’ Granma said that because of this decreasing ratio the retirement reforms must be taken up to ensure the country can ‘achieve greater economic development, which is the only way to continue supporting its high social expenditures, among them those of Social Security and Welfare.’ In December we will see if this bill gets passed by the National Assembly, but until then we can simply marvel at the organisation and political involvement of everyday Cuban people.
UN annual vote on the blockade
‘You are alone, isolated!’ Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque told outgoing US President Bush at the UN General Assembly on 29 October 2008 after the vote on Cuba’s proposal to lift the US blockade of Cuba. The overwhelming majority of votes were against the US blockade of Cuba for the 16th year in a row – so why is the blockade still in place? Yet again, the US has used its veto on the Security Council to overturn the decision. Some democracy! Of 192 UN member states, 185 voted in favour of the resolution to end the blockade. This is the highest vote yet. Three voted against: US, Israel and Palau (population 21,000); two abstained, Marshall Islands (population 61,000) and Micronesia (population 108,000).
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, the US blockade is increasingly recognised to have failed to destroy the revolutionary process. However, the blockade, which is illegal under international law, has resulted in massive avoidable economic hardships for the Cuban people over the last five decades. In 2006, Cuba compiled a comprehensive report detailing how the blockade had cost the Cuban economy over $86 billion since 1960. It remains to be seen what direction Barack Obama’s administration will take with regards to Cuba and the blockade.
End the US blockade of Cuba now!
UN annual vote on the blockade
In early November, Hurricane Paloma hit Cuba, the third major hurricane in ten weeks. Cuba yet again confirmed that socialism prioritises people. More than 1.2 million people in total were evacuated, no-one was left unprotected and no-one died.
‘Paloma’ means dove in Spanish, but Raul Castro nicknamed the hurricane ‘Imperial Eagle’ as he travelled round with other heads of the government and the army to visit some of those affected in the eastern provinces. In the small coastal town of Guayabal in Las Tunas, 100 of the 273 homes were totally destroyed and the rest damaged by coastal flooding with waves a metre high travelling 700 metres inland. In Santa Cruz del Sur in Camagüey, nearly 10,000 homes were damaged including 1,353 which totally collapsed. Many towns were left without electricity and telephone lines; roads were damaged, and agriculture was devastated in some areas and there was severe flooding. The Cuban people responded with their unwavering commitment and complete mobilisation to initiate recovery.
Cuba was already reeling from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The total cost of the damage inflicted by the three hurricanes is estimated at $10 billion, with half a million homes damaged. Raul Castro said: ‘We have the will to overcome, to confront these natural phenomena and draw the relevant lessons, given that we have to live with them, but the most important, the principal thing, is life’.
Cubans are now battling to reduce future damage and to find practical solutions to the problem of increasingly frequent and more violent hurricanes. Pinar del Rio province had 102,000 homes damaged by hurricanes between 2002 and 2005. 85,000 homes had been restored before the ‘nuclear strike’ – as Fidel Castro described the force of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav – which hit the region in September damaging another 98,000 homes.
Now in Pinar del Rio engineers and construction workers are installing for the first time and on a large scale a new type of roofing, more resistant to strong winds. The system has a simple and fast assembly procedure which does not require cranes and heavy operating equipment. The aim is to restore over 2,000 houses by the end of 2008 using this technology. To accelerate the process, local people are getting involved in reconstruction and brigades are being formed to train people from other provinces. The country is mobilising – only a revolutionary, empowered, disciplined and literate society could withstand these onslaughts and move forward. Viva Cuba socialista!
To make a financial donation to Cuba’s recuperation process, see Rock around the Blockade’s website at www.ratb.org.uk
FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009