In a country where almost everyone works for the communist state, dairy farmer Jesus Diaz is his own boss. He likes it that way — and so does the government.
Living on a plot of land just big enough to graze four dairy cows, Diaz produces enough milk to sell about four quarts a day to the state.
This is independent production on a tiny scale, but it has proved so efficient that Cuba has decided on a major expansion of its program to distribute underused and fallow farmland to private farmers and cooperatives.
"It's a way for the land to end up in the hands of those who want to produce. I see it as a very good thing," said Diaz, 45. He received his land and cows from the state in 1996, and now hopes to get access to more property.
The government is preparing for a "massive distribution of land," Orlando Lugo, president of Cuba's national farming association, said last week. Private farmers have begun receiving land for the cash crops of coffee and tobacco, and will soon be able to lease state land for other crops.
The idea is to revolutionize farming, one tiny plot at a time.
‘They leave you alone’
While attention has focused on President Raul Castro's crowd-pleasing moves to allow any Cuban who can afford it to buy a cell phone or stay in a luxury hotel, farmland distribution has been less noticed and is potentially much more important for easing chronic food shortages.
The bet is that independent farmers will do better on their own than toiling for state-run agricultural enterprises, which suffer from red tape, bad planning and lack of funding.
"The authorities, they leave you alone and let you produce," said Aristides Ramon de Machado, who got permission to plant bananas, papaya and guava in a lot by his home in Boca Ciega, east of Havana.
De Machado only grows enough for his family to eat and is prohibited from selling any surplus. But he said entrusting larger private farmers with more land will encourage them to increase production.
"Seeing the fruits of your own labor gives you pleasure in ways that working for someone else does not," he said.
Plenty of rules and quotas
Fidel Castro's revolutionaries seized all large farms for the state after toppling dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and officials insist the new liberalization isn't a betrayal of revolutionary values.
Independent farmers still face rules about what and how much they can plant, and risk losing their land if they fail to meet government production quotas. They are also required by law to sell any surplus to farmers' markets.
Increasing food production has been a top priority for 76-year-old Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as president in February.
While distributing farmland to individuals has been tried before in Cuba, this time the government seems willing to give up more control to get better results.
For example, it has authorized state stores to sell supplies directly to farmers — a key concession, since for decades, individuals had trouble legally obtaining so much as a shovel. The state also is providing free fertilizer and feed.
And this time, local farming associations are being empowered to oversee the land reallocation, a prerogative once reserved for the Agricultural Ministry in Havana, although Lugo added that the municipal delegations still must report to a new "central control center" lest land distribution "degenerate into chaos."
Cuba spends $1.6 billion annually on food imports, about a third of it from the United States, which exempts food and farm exports from its embargo of the island.
Cuba even imports 82 percent of the $1 billion in rice, powdered milk and other staples it then rations to the public at subsidized prices — an astoundingly high figure for such a fertile country.
At farmers' markets, basics like cabbage and oranges are almost always available, but tomatoes and lettuce disappear during the rainy summer, and imported apples are considered a rare delicacy.
State-controlled cooperatives operate like modern mega-farms on huge swaths of land, often using heavy equipment and sophisticated irrigation systems. The cooperatives control all kinds of crops, including signature products like sugar, though the high-quality tobacco that goes into Cuba's famous cigars is already mostly in private hands.
Many large cooperatives are losing money and failing to meet production quotas. Their workers have little incentive to improve things, since wages remain low no matter how well the farms do.
Meanwhile, many of the 250,000 private Cuban farmers must plant and pick their crops by hand, plowing with oxen and watering with buckets.
In Guira de Melena, 30 miles south of Havana, El Guateque is one of three supply stores islandwide that are now allowed to sell supplies directly to private farmers. It offers small items such as gloves, machetes, hoes and horse bridles.
Such tools may be humble and low-tech, but they help to produce 60 percent of Cuba's total food output on just a third of its arable land.
In other moves to invigorate the industry, Cuba has settled outstanding debts to farmers and more than doubled what it pays milk and meat producers. Farmers say the government also is paying more for potatoes, coconuts, coffee and other products.
But if a farmland revolution is coming, it hasn't brought big profits to farmers yet. Diaz gets 2.50 pesos per quart of milk, up from one peso. A peso is worth slightly less than a nickel.