Reuters reports that Cuban President Raúl Castro has announced a five-year plan that he hopes will ease the country’s economic problems and reliance on food imports. Echoing some of his previous attempts at agricultural reform, the president wants to surround cities with small urban farms so private citizens can raise animals and grow fruits and vegetables. While Castro has firmly stated that he has no plans to make broad changes to the socialist government, these small initiatives would seem to be signaling a move away from the collectivist agriculture that some critics believe is forcing the fertile island to import about 70 percent of its food. Cuba has huge swaths of unused land left over from giant sugar cane farms that went fallow after the end of Soviet subsidies. “The land is there waiting for our sweat,” Castro said in a speech in July.
The new plan will rely on small producers working unused suburban land with organic methods, similar to the reform that food activists like Will Allen are calling for in the United States. The pilot program will take place in the suburbs of Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city, and government experts expect it to provide the city of 320,000 people with about 75 percent of its food. While the Alice Waters-meets-Castro aspect of these reforms might seem strange, Raúl has been a proponent of encouraging domestic development since the fall of the Soviet Union and has previously leased large amounts of land to private farmers, saying beans were more important than cannons.
When Raúl Castro formally took power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, many hoped that he would bring a new era of progressive reform. Early on, he said he would actively encourage discussions of Cuba’s shortcomings in universities, but over the past few years he has been accused of beating, imprisoning and torturing political dissenters. He is No. 13 on Parade magazine’s list of worst dictators.
“For sure there will be more food around here if you come back in a few years,” a farmer named Camilio Mendoza told Reuters. “More than that, I can’t say.”