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New Cooperatives Form Part of Cuba’s Reforms

HAVANA, Jul 11 2013 (IPS) - More than 100 non-farming cooperatives this month joined the independent sector of the Cuban economy, which includes self-employed workers and farmers granted public land to work, as part of the policy outlined by the government for modernising the management of state property.

The authorities have defended “social ownership of the basic means of production” as an essential aspect of the new economic model being built on the basis of reforms outlined by the “economic and social policy guidelines” of the governing Communist Party of Cuba, considered a roadmap for “updating” the socialist system promoted by President Raúl Castro.

In recent legislative debates that touched on this issue, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, said the changes underway were aimed at building “prosperous and sustainable socialism, in which the main protagonist is the public enterprise, strengthened with greater autonomy in its management and the distribution of its results.”

“Socialism presupposes social ownership over the basic means of production; prosperous signifies a state of well-being; and sustainable is synonymous with development, because without it, nothing is sustained,” said Murillo, who is also chair of the government commission charged with implementing the economic and social policy guidelines, the highest responsibility in the economic modernisation process officially launched in 2011.

Analysts consulted by IPS said that the creation of 124 non-agricultural cooperatives was one of the “boldest” steps taken by the Castro administration, given that 112 of these new entities are former state companies, and they are being called upon to be more efficient than their predecessors. Until now, cooperatives were only allowed in the field of agriculture.

By sector, 99 of the new cooperatives are involved in the agricultural market; 12 will operate as construction brigades; five are for passenger transport, including school transport; six are for transport repair, bodywork and other services; and the remaining two will collect and recycle raw materials. An additional 71 coops are expected to join their ranks shortly.

In a speech that was broadcast after the legislative debates, Castro said his government would resolutely support the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives, which together with the expansion of self-employment “will make it easier to free up the state from non-essential production and service activities so that it can concentrate on long-term development.”

However, this process is being carried out with precaution, which is why these first non-agricultural coops will initially operate only in the provinces of Havana and neighbouring Artemisa and Mayabeque. According to how things go, the experience could be extended to the rest of the country.

Cooperatives in Cuba have their own legal status, and they use, enjoy and dispose of their own assets, although they can also employ any other resource leased to them by the state. The coop’s highest governing body is the general assembly, in which each member has a vote.

Murillo said the number of registered self-employed workers had climbed from 157,037 in September 2010 to 429,458 today. In 2008, the government began distributing idle public land to farmers. The construction of housing on the land was later authorised. Nevertheless, the new farms continue to report low levels of production.

According to recent estimates, a total of 176,000 people were granted land to farm, and Decree-Law 300, passed in December 2012, increased the maximum amount of land they are allowed to possess from 40 to 67 hectares.

The Land Control Centre (Centro de Control de la Tierra) reports that 1.5 million hectares of idle state farmland have been distributed so far, and another 975,000 are available for distribution. The aim is to boost agricultural yields and food production.

Despite these and other measures, the agriculture sector has not obtained sufficient yields to meet the country’s needs. By the end of this year, Cuba will have spent an estimated two billion dollars on food imports.

“Production must be freed up even more,” one expert on agriculture, who did not want to be identified, told IPS.

According to that source, agriculture in Cuba absorbs 20 percent of the workforce but accounts for less than five percent of GDP, because it is the sector with the lowest productivity. “There is still a long road ahead, because the efforts made so far have not produced the expected results,” the expert said.

Food is the biggest expense for the average Cuban family, for whom the 2.3 percent GDP growth in the first half of the year went unnoticed, President Castro admitted during closing remarks at the parliamentary session. Growth is expected to range from 2.5 to 3 percent by the end of the year.

The president said that an atmosphere of order and discipline in Cuban society is an “essential premise for consolidating the progress of the updating of the economic model and for not accepting counterproductive setbacks.”

In that respect, he urged citizens to join the struggle against “the atmosphere of indiscipline that has become entrenched” in Cuban society and that is “causing considerable moral and material harm.” In his opinion, this battle should not be just another campaign, but a “permanent movement.”

“We have painfully perceived, throughout more than 20 years of the ‘special period’ (a euphemism for the crisis), the increased deterioration of moral and civic values, such as honesty, decency, shame, decorum and sensitivity to the problems of others,” he said, in extensive remarks on the subject.

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