So with meaningful reforms apparently off the table, what is left for Raul Castro to do? Tinker around the edges, that’s what. This is the reason why we have seen these types of announcements so far under Raul Castro: all sizzle and no steak.
The rising cost of commodities, however, is forcing Raul to tinker in the area of agriculture, which has historically been in a mess in Castro’s Cuba. The regime has recently announced that more state land will be made available to individual farmers. Though they can’t own, sell, or trade the land, some observers believe this is an attempt not only to kick-start its agricultural sector but to lure peasants back to the countryside which they abandoned unlawfully in search of elusive prosperity in the cities. Cuba is one of the few countries in the world with an internal illegal immigration problem because its citizens are not allowed to move freely within its borders, much less travel abroad without permission.
It’s estimated that less than 50% of Cuba’s arable land is currently being cultivated; much of it is overrun by a parasitic shrub known as marabú. Cuba currently has to import more than half of its food supply. Despite the U.S. trade embargo, which contains exceptions for food and agricultural products, the United States is Cuba’s largest food supplier.
No failure in Cuban agriculture is as dramatic as that in the cultivation of sugar. Once the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba began importing sugar several years ago. And it’s not as if the world doesn’t need what was once Cuba’s most lucrative export crop. Brazil’s current energy independence is bolstered by sugarcane-based ethanol in addition to its substantial oil and natural gas industries. In a world that is looking for renewable alternative energy sources like ethanol, Cuba’s sugar harvest is hovering around a hundred-year low.
The kind of economic tinkering currently underway is euphemistically referred as a “perfecting” by the regime. Fifty years after the triumph of Fidel Castro and his followers in a revolution that promised agrarian reform that would put land in the hands of Cuban peasants but instead put it in the hands of an inefficient state monopoly, there’s a whole lot more perfecting that needs to happen. I’m not holding my breath as long as Raul Castro is in charge. A prosperous future for Cuba depends on some other figure that has yet to emerge.