HAVANA – Cuba on Monday acknowledged a failure to pay cash-strapped farmers on time and said some local officials lied to cover up the problem — a blunt admission from the communist government that crucial agriculture reforms lauded by President Raul Castro have so far fallen short.
The public mea culpa came in a full page spread Monday in the state-run Granma newspaper, which acknowledged that the issue is a main cause of discontent in the countryside.
It said that after an enormous effort to repay farmers that began in 2004, the problem has come up again.
"We ought to admit that provincial agriculture officials, local governments and the Agriculture Ministry itself have not taken responsibility," Agriculture Minister Ulises Rosales de Toro is quoted as saying.
The minister said that some local officials have falsified records to hide the lack of payments, something that he described as "unconscionable."
"Anybody who acts in this way calls into question his moral authority to lead," the report quoted him as saying.
Despite a warm climate and rich soil, Cuba lacks the ability to feed itself and must import more than $2 billion worth of food a year, much of it from the United States.
Cuban markets offer a grim selection of basic products, and often run out. Many complain that it is hard to get by on government ration books that grant only about 15 days worth of food for an entire month.
Raul Castro, who took over from his elder brother Fidel in February 2008, has made agriculture reform one of the main goals of his administration. He has handed over 80,000 parcels of fallow government land to private farmers and exhorted his countrymen to produce more.
The government says the program is working, although it acknowledges progress is slow. Farmers say they often lack the equipment and fertilizer to plow the new fields, and that inefficiency has caused some food to rot before it can reach supermarket shelves.
According to the Granma report, the government owes farmers about $95,000 — not much by international standards, but a windfall in a country where farmers get by on well under $100 a month and must sell most of their production back to the state.
The payment problems "constitute an immorality in that they make producers think that the state is not willing to pay them," the newspaper said.