Raul Castro to Cubans: Return to the Land

Cuban President Raul Castro was short on details as he implied difficult economic times were still here for Cubans. The world economic crisis, and particularly a reduction in income from exports, means Cuba cannot meet its projected growth index, Castro told an early Sunday morning rally in the eastern Cuban city of Holguin.

The growth forecast has already been cut from 6% to 2.5%, according to government sources.

On Tuesday, he said, the Council of Ministers would be meeting to discuss a second adjustment in the nation's spending plan. The next day, a plenary of the Communist Party Central Committee will also take place.

And, Castro said, the National Assembly or parliament (that normally meets in July before recessing for the summer) will gather on August 1 to discuss, among other issues, the Contraloria, the body that oversees all spending and management by government agencies.

(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
(Left: Demonstrators at a rally marking Cuba's Day of National Rebellion in Holguin, Sunday, July 26, 2009.)

In his short, 34-minute speech at the traditional July 26 rally marking Cuba's Day of National Rebellion (the 1953 armed uprising against the Batista dictatorship that six years later brought his older brother Fidel to power), Raul Castro reiterated the urgent need to increase agricultural production to replace food imports. At present, Cuba buys 80% of the food it consumes from international suppliers.

Castro, who stepped in to run the country when Fidel Castro was sidelined by illness in 2006, reiterated his call for more people to return to the land. On July 26, 2007, he had announced a plan to provide free leases to land parcels to those interested in growing fruits and vegetables. That program, he told rally participants, is moving along "satisfactorily."

"Eight-two thousand requests for land have been approved," he said. But now the issue is to work "more efficiently."

He described growing what is now "costing us hundreds of millions of dollars to import" a top priority task.

"The land is here, the Cubans are here and the land is waiting for us," he said.

There were some 1.69 million hectares of state land lying fallow before the land lease program got underway.

Three devastating hurricanes last year destroyed homes and agriculture across the island with losses put at $10 billion. That combined with the global economic crunch has drastically reduced the island's liquidity.

The government has already taken measures ranging from scheduled power blackouts to limiting the use of air conditioners at state offices, schools and shops to just three hours a day (from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). Public transportation has been cut back and selective factory and workplace closedowns are being implemented. Foreign businesses operating on the island have found their bank accounts frozen (a policy that apparently has been slightly tempered in recent days), and some individuals say they have had trouble cashing checks or making hard currency withdrawals from their private bank accounts.

Caridad Fuente, a married retiree with one grown-up son, listened to the speech with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she sees belt tightening is in order; but on the other, she says, "It's a good thing the government is organizing the economy on a more realistic basis."

One thing is clear, Fuente says: "We will have to work more and more efficiently."

And as Cuba's population ages there are efforts underway to bring younger generations into the work force earlier.

The Ministry of Higher Education recently took the decision to send first- and second-year university students to work in agriculture for at least one month during the school year, and third- and fourth-year students will be sent to work in areas related to their fields of study for the same period of time.

Carlos Alzucaray, a researcher at the Center for Studies of the United States, said there were two things that particularly struck him about Raul Castro's speech: First, that he announced the upcoming meetings of the Council of State and the Communist Party plenary. "These kinds of meetings are not usually spoken about publicly. I think this reflects a new openness and reinforces Raul's insistence on institutions and organization," he said.

Secondly, "Raul focused only on domestic issues with only the briefest mention of his recent trip to Africa and the global economic crisis. He didn't even mention Honduras."

Unlike previous July 26 speeches, there was no long list of achievements in Castro's speech, noted Alzucaray. Even more importantly, he said, Castro only referred to the U.S. embargo in an aside. "Instead of blaming the embargo for our problems, he talked about what we have to do to overcome its impact," noted Alzucaray, who has written extensively on U.S.-Cuba relations. "I think that's a good thing."

By CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum reporting from Havana