Reforming Cuba’s Agrarian Reform

Zoe Brent | 12.17.2013

Recent law embodies the challenges of balancing productive efficiency with the state’s historic role in regulating food production

Since coming to power in 2007, Raúl Castro has also taken steps to cultivate Cuba’s idle rural lands and increase food self-sufficiency—something that for him has always been an important matter of national security. Many Cubans will tell you that of the two Castro brothers, Raúl has been the driving force supporting Cuba’s revolution in organic agriculture. In the face of the U.S. embargo after the fall of the Soviet Union he was a key backer of the expansion of urban agriculture. Now, thanks to a new agrarian reform law, anyone in Cuba willing to farm will be given land to do so.

Although the so-called special period—the economic crisis years of the 1990s and early 2000s—is over, improving agricultural production remains a key priority in the round of economic reforms that Raúl began in 2007. The latest agrarian reform Decree Law (300) builds on a larger project, which began in 2008, that seeks to make the management of farming operations more effective, while maintaining state ownership of land.

Though simple in concept, this land policy offers a window into the role of the Cuban state in agriculture and some of the key tensions between state land ownership vs. grassroots control, efficient farm management vs. social equity and wellbeing that are central to Cuba’s ongoing revolutionary reform process.

The very same year of 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro’s government enacted its first agrarian reform law. This entailed a massive expropriation of lands by the state and the dismantling of the traditional latifundio system of concentrated private—and often foreign—ownership. It also represented a bold assertion of state sovereignty over productive resources. Later, faced with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the of its primary trading partner, the weaknesses of the state’s large-scale, export-oriented agricultural model on those reclaimed lands became glaringly obvious. To increase food production for local markets, the government’s response was to redistribute control over lands through long-term leases (usufruct rights) without actually giving up ownership.

Many critics have hailed this as the beginning of the end of the socialist revolution noting that emerging free market spaces, like private farmers’ markets are opening the door to capitalism.

In 1993 the Cuban government ceded control of approximately 45 percent of the country’s farmland free of charge to farmers who were willing to produce food cooperatively in Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). This represented not only a dramatic change in land tenure, but in labor relations as well. The shift fueled a massive conversion of farm-workers into farm-managers. Although the ownership of the land remained in the hands of the state, the increased autonomy over farm management began to remedy some of the inefficiencies of state-run production.

Immediately after the creation of UBPCs, in an effort to further stimulate food production, the government allowed the creation of markets where farmers could sell their goods at prices set by supply and demand rather than by the state. By law farmers are still required to sell a portion of what they produce to the state collection system (Acopio) at prices set by that agency, but they are free to sell the rest at higher prices in private markets. Access to these open markets has allowed members of cooperative farms to rise to the top of the socio-economic pyramid, sometimes earning double what professionals—even doctors—make. This dual system has highlighted the contrast between the lucrative private sector and the public Acopio system that has been criticized for inefficiency, late payments to farmers and poor management. However, for all its faults the public quotas ensure that the monthly food ration systems, schools, hospitals and elderly homes are stocked with food.

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Since 2008, 173,000 of the 194,000 Cubans who applied for land grants received land, totaling more than 3.5 million acres. The law offers land use rights for ten years, with the possibility of a ten-year extension, as long as the applicant keeps farming the land. Initially, regulations on land sizes meant individuals could apply for a maximum of thirty-three acres, or a total farm size of 100 acres including existing holdings. In this scheme, land could not be passed on to relatives or others.

In response to feedback from farmers, Decree Law 300 modifies the program by increasing the maximum parcel size an individual can apply for to 165 acres, allowing land transfer in the event that the farmer dies, and permitting the construction of houses on the property.

However, some farmers claim that a ten-year use agreement is simply not long enough (especially since most of Cuba’s idle lands are covered with a thorny bush called marabou that requires significant time investment to clear). Others fault the law for being too timid and working too gradually. In a true testament to the changes afoot in Cuba in all sectors—including access to technology and freedom of expression—one farmer’s blog claims that the new laws ignore the real causes of inefficiency: lack of private ownership.

This law embodies one of the key challenges for Cuban economic reform: how to balance the goal of productive efficiency with the historic role of the state in regulating food production. By maintaining state ownership of agricultural land the Cuban revolutionary government has effectively buffered the volatility of land values that makes small farmers vulnerable to displacement in a free market system. However, after years of state-owned and state-managed operations, the bloated state has recognized its limits. Economic reforms have enabled legal private enterprise in a number of sectors and the state has planned to lay off a million public employees. Many critics have hailed this as the beginning of the end of the socialist revolution noting that emerging free market spaces, like private farmers’ markets are opening the door to capitalism.

Decree Law 300, however, represents Raúl’s ongoing attempt to adapt its brand of socialism to current conditions. By allowing an increasingly mixed economy, the aim is to incentivize more efficient production while maintaining control over the key means of production and mandating that a portion of production be sold back to the state for social ends.

These social pillars in the structure of the Cuban economy have provided the glue for social unity, survival and sovereignty in the face of incredible challenges since the beginning of the revolution. Sustaining and preserving these social priorities in the midst of a global capitalist system will no doubt be essential to the future of the Cuban revolutionary project.

Stay tuned for dates and details for Food Sovereignty Tour’s second 2014 delegation to Cuba!  Sign up for our newsletter to receive tour announcements.