By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
The winds of change may be blowing through Cuba.
It’s about time: The Caribbean nation is an economic basket case, thanks to a dictatorial regime that has suppressed entrepreneurship in favor of collectivism for half a century.
Yet even Cuba’s hard-line rulers know that they can’t cling forever to discredited, Marxist theories about how the world works.
Earlier this month, Cuban president Raul Castro (the brother of Fidel) loosened his grip on his country’s farmers. On May 16, economy minister Marino Murillo announced that 350,000 family farmers will begin to purchase their own supplies rather than having them allocated by the government.
According to Reuters, Murillo described plans to “create in the majority of municipalities supply markets where farmers can acquire directly the necessary resources to produce, substituting the current system of assigning resources centrally.”
Imagine that! They get to make a few of their own decisions about how to grow food.
It’s a small but significant step in the direction of freedom. Cuba still has a long way to go. The government maintains a near monopoly on food sales. And don’t hold your breath for free speech, a free press, or free elections.
Yet we should applaud every sign of progress. This is a notable one. Improved access to equipment, fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, and seeds will lead to better farming. (Might I suggest new rear tires for tractors? When I was there, it was my first and only view of completely bald rear tires on tractors!)
Another positive sign involves the case of Humberto Rios Labrada, a Cuban farmer. He recently won a Goldman Environmental Prize for what the Associated Press described as his “campaign to let Cuban farmers choose the crops and seed varieties best for their lands.” It added, “Rios wants to make Cuban farms more sustainable by giving farmers more autonomy--a radical notion in what has long been a strictly top-down planned economy where officials tell producers just what to grow, even if it isn’t quite right for the soil.”
William A. Messina, Jr. of the University of Florida, an expert on Cuban agriculture, has likened Rios to “a Cuban Johnny Appleseed.”
Rios is an advocate of organic agriculture, which is a perfectly fine choice for farmers who want to experiment with it. Let’s hope that his crusade for farmer freedom allows Cubans to explore every option that technology can afford them, including genetically modified crops.
Biotechnology has revolutionized farming throughout the Western hemisphere, including Latin America. Argentina and Brazil are major growers of GM crops. There’s no reason why Cuba shouldn’t join this club, too.
The government in Havana certainly must take steps to improve the island’s food security. Cuba currently imports about 60 percent of what its people eat. This is a ridiculously high figure for a nation that enjoys plenty of arable land.
Unleashing the productivity of Cuba’s private farmers is the key to success. They harvest 41 percent of their country’s farmland--and yet they are responsible for 70 percent of its agricultural output. As they come to enjoy more freedom, their output will only grow.
The United States can play a critical role. Although Washington continues to maintain economic sanctions on Cuba, it has also become a major supplier of food. Agricultural exports to Cuba were worth $712 million in 2008. They’ve slipped since then, due in part to the global economic slowdown, but the United States is still Cuba’s most important agricultural trading partner.
In April, a congressional report conducted by Parr Rosson of Texas A&M University described strategies for boosting U.S. exports to more than $1 billion per year--activity that would create about 6,000 new jobs. This would provide a small but welcome lift to America’s ailing economy. It would also help the Obama administration meet its goal of doubling exports over the next five years.
And it would help Cubans. Trade in goods and services inevitably lead to exchanges of ideas. American farmers are the most productive in the world and our experiences can help Cuban farmers improve Cuban agriculture as we teach them how get the most from their land--and how to get the most from their newfound freedom.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, visited Cuba in 1999. Mr. Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org