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Cuba's quiet revolution

By David Ariosto, CNN
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Cuban farmers to bypass bureaucracy
  • Cuba relaxes some state controls in farming, tourism and the beauty industry
  • Private farmers will be allowed to buy straight from suppliers bypassing government
  • Private farmers, cooperatives produce about 70 percent of the food grown in Cuba
  • But it still imports the majority of its food

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- At a privately run farm west of Havana, Cuban farmer Jesus Rodriguez is looking for some changes.

Private farmers like Rodriguez would commonly wait for their supplies to be allocated by the state, often leaving their farms short of much needed materials that would routinely compel them to look elsewhere.

"Sometimes in order to get seeds we need it would take up to two months," he said standing amid a thatch of corn he planted a few months earlier. "The seeds just wouldn't get here in time."

The country's fledgling agricultural sector and massive distribution machine have been a source of concern for many of the country's private farms and cooperatives.

"We've used substitutions for the necessary supplies that we seldom receive from the government because of the economic situation," he explained while taking shade beneath the crop's thick, green stalks.

In May the Economy Minister, Marino Murillo, heeded farmers' calls for more autonomy and announced that private farms will be permitted to purchase goods directly from suppliers.

"It looks like [Cuba] is going to try to take apart this big bureaucracy that's in charge of distribution and purchasing of food from the farmers," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington D.C.

"[That would] allow farmers to have a more direct connection with consumers of all kinds."

A similar initiative in 2008 permitted some farmers to purchase supplies.

But the cash-strapped island nation faces mounting debt and routine shortages, leaving the questions of where to buy supplies, how to acquire credit, and how to improve transport to market largely unanswered.

Still, analysts praised Cuba's economic potential.

"That potential can be realized if their government gets out of the way," Peters said. "And they don't have to abandon the socialist model. They can adapt it and use more market mechanisms in a lot of ways."

The country's association of roughly 350,000 private farmers has been central to recent reforms and often the focus of President Raul Castro's attempts to address chronic food shortages on the island.

Cuba's private farmers and cooperatives use only about 40 percent of the nation's farmland, but produce roughly 70 percent of the food grown on the island.

"I think the reason [for the high productivity among private farmers] is the sense of property that the person has," one farmer explained who declined to provide his name.

"Because where you work you have the feeling that it belongs to you and you fight and defend it because it's your own."

Raul Castro assumed power from his ailing brother and former president Fidel Castro in 2006, at first temporarily then permanently in 2008, and has long considered food security integral to national security.

Murillo's recent announcement also comes on the heels of a series of small liberalization measures aimed at improving production, while attempting to maintain the communist nation's egalitarian doctrine.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero in May announced plans to open up real estate on tourism-related projects, laying out plans for new hotels across the country.

And Cuba instituted a pilot program in April that turned over hundreds of state-run barbershops and beauty salons to employees.

"I think both Fidel Castro and Raul Castro have both recognized problems in the economy," explained analyst Peters. "But Fidel Castro's prescription was always for people to work harder and for the government to enforce the law."

President Raul Castro "is looking at incentives," he said. "He's looking to fix the model."

Whether this latest move is a part of broader market reforms or a narrow effort to make farms more productive is not clear. But for now Cuba still imports a majority of its food.