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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
Cuba farms hint at future reform
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

The 19th Street market Havana's Vedado district
Cuba's markets are lively, and have produce from local co-operatives
It was 31 July last year that a sick Fidel Castro issued a proclamation naming his younger brother Raul as acting head of state.

It proved to be a calm, smooth transition, with the Communist Party remaining firmly in control. But so far, stability has not led to any improvement to people's daily lives.

Only now, one year on, are there signs that caretaker President Raul Castro may be preparing the country for a dose of Chinese-style economic reforms.

So far, one of the very few legal forms of private enterprise allowed on this Caribbean island is the farmers' market.

One of the best and busiest is the 19th Street market in the Vedado district of the capital, Havana.

State quota

Like food markets the world over, it vibrates to the sound of stall-holders shouting out their sales pitches, enticing customers to buy their fruit and vegetables.

Xavier Perez
The private producer works harder and looks after his crops
Xavier Perez

The produce comes from nearby co-operative farms and smallholdings. Once they have met their state quota they are free to sell everything else they grow in the market.

It is only in the past 15 years that such capitalist-style activities have been allowed here - a limited concession forced by the collapse of the country's former benefactor, the Soviet Union.

While the state shops are half empty, there is no shortage of food in the farmers' market. But it is expensive.

The average wage in Cuba is around 100 pesos a week. I bought two mangos, four green peppers and a pound of cucumbers and it cost me 60 pesos - roughly three days wages. Although, with access to hard currency it is less than $3.

'Making sacrifices'

I asked some of the customers in the market how they could afford to shop there.

Will Fidel Castro allow the country to move away from his cherished ideal of egalitarianism, where every man must be equal even if all are poor?

"My husband makes handicrafts which he sells to tourists so I can afford to shop here," one woman told me.

But others are less fortunate. "It's about making sacrifices", another woman said.

Low wages, food shortages and poor public transport are the complaints that dominate conversations here much more than questions of political freedom.

In a televised speech last week, before a crowd of one 100,000 people, Raul Castro acknowledged that all was not well.

"To have more, we have to begin producing more... To reach these goals, the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced," he told the crowd.

Winds of change

He also said that the country may have to turn once again to foreign investment.

Many Cubans and Western observers believe this to be a signal that Chinese-style reforms are finally on the way - an opening up of the economy while maintaining political control.

His hand may not be on the tiller, but his presence remains immense

And it is agriculture which could be the first to feel the winds of change.

Some farmers already own their land.

Men like Xavier Perez, who employs four people on his two-hectare smallholding just east of the capital.

He grows bananas, mangos and guavas and once he has met his state quota, the rest goes to the market in Havana.

About 60% of farms are still run by the state. But according to government statistics published online, it is the co-operative and small private farms which provide almost 90% of all the food grown here.

Xavier Perez explained: "The private producer works harder and looks after his crops. If you are employed by the state it's just a job, nobody cares."

Revolutionary dedication

But will Fidel Castro allow the country to move away from his cherished ideal of egalitarianism, where every man must be equal even if all are poor?

The 80-year-old "commander-in-chief", as Fidel is still referred to here, continues to recuperate following a series of stomach operations.

Recent pictures show that he has put on weight and appears to be getting stronger.

In recent months Fidel Castro has increasingly made his presence felt through regular newspaper editorials, called Reflections by the Commander in Chief. Each are read out in full on the nightly news.

Last month he suggested that all that was really needed was more revolutionary dedication.

"The standard of living can be improved by raising knowledge, self-esteem and dignity of the people. It will be enough to reduce waste and the economy will grow."

For the moment Fidel Castro's role appears to be that of an elder statesman.

His hand may not be on the tiller, but his presence remains immense. Many believe that there can be no major changes in Cuba without his approval. Much less against his wishes.

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