In fields and city streets, Cuba embraces change

Tue Jan 25, 2011 2:14pm EST
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By Frank Jack Daniel

ARANGO, Cuba (Reuters) - Across Cuba, new farmers are tilling fertile fields abandoned for decades and city streets are abuzz with market stalls as private businesses sow the seeds of what many hope will be an economic revival.

In the biggest shake-up of the withered state-run economy since revolutionary leader Fidel Castro nationalized all private companies more than 40 years ago, the Communist-led island is laying off a million public workers and encouraging people to work idle state-owned land or set up businesses.

Since the 1960s, jobs on the Caribbean island have almost entirely been provided by the state, right down to trades like barbers and watch-menders. Many farm lands fell into disuse as Cuban agriculture stagnated under strict rules and low prices.

"Six months ago I didn't even remotely think of coming to the countryside. But in six months, the country has changed," said Juan, a retired army officer who trained as an agronomist but only returned to farming in December.

Tens of thousands of businesses have sprung up across Cuba in just a few weeks at the bidding of Fidel Castro's brother, President Raul Castro, with farms replanted, new restaurants opening daily and placid streets starting to buzz with trade.

A few blocks from hulking concrete government ministries decorated with portraits of revolutionary heroes that still provide the vast majority of jobs on the island, dozens of people now line up each morning to buy pizzas, underwear and pirate DVDs from the new generation of legal street vendors.

Until recently, most sellers of private goods operated illegally and risked fines and police abuse. Now they sell in the open, contributing to social security and the public purse.

"I've sold 20 films this morning and it's my first day, imagine what it will be like when people know I'm here," said Katrina, doing a brisk trade in Japanese animation, Hollywood films such as "Twilight" and Michael Jackson CDs.   Continued...

<p>People eat at a "Paladar", or home restaurant, in the town of Cienfuegos, in central Cuba, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Havana January 21, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan</p>