Havana – Cuba said it plans to invest up to $450 million over the next few years in a program to increase domestic rice production, which remains insufficient to meet the demand on the island, state television reported.
The investment, which for this year will amount to $108 million, will focus on installing state-of-the-art technology to boost farm machinery, drying sheds and crops, an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said Thursday.
The televised report said that rice production is "still insufficient" despite the strategy designed and put in place by the ministry.
But it said that investment in new projects up to the year 2016 are calculated to slash cereal imports by boosting national production.
Rice growing is currently being promoted in 152 municipalities on the Communist-ruled island, with farmers benefiting from advice provided by Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese experts.
According to the spokesman, 80 percent of rice production on the island, considered a "high priority," is in the hands of agricultural cooperatives and independent farmers.
Cuba imports more than 400,000 tons of rice per year, or 60 percent of the total consumed by its 11.2 million inhabitants, who regard the cereal as essential to their daily diet.
Since 2008 the president of Cuba, Gen. Raul Castro, has launched agricultural reforms aimed at increasing food production to substitute imports, a policy he considers one of national security because the country was spending more than $1.5 million per year on importing 80 percent of the food it consumed.
One of the first reforms was a plan to close more than 100 "inefficient" state-run agricultural enterprises and transfer upwards of 40,000 workers to other jobs.
Since then the Cuban government had shifted usership of over 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of land for agricultural purposes, of which 79 percent is being used for crops that are mostly tilled by "individual" farmers.
The amount of idle land in Cuba in 2008 was estimated at more than 1,800,000 hectares (3,200,000 acres), but now official sources say that opening the land for agriculture and the use it has been put to since then "has contributed to reverse the poor state of a large part of that terrain."
Another recent reform allows Cuban farmers to sell agricultural products directly to hotels.
As of last Dec. 23, a total of 71 contracts had been signed between agricultural producers and hotels located in the country's most important tourist spots, including the Varadero seaside resort, Havana and the eastern provinces of Camaguey and Granma.
Small farmers sell their new customers fruits and vegetables, including guavas, pineapples, lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage, in the chink that has been opened in the state agricultural and livestock marketing monopoly.
The measure forms part of the "reordering" of the agricultural sector included in the plan of reforms promoted by the government for the purpose of "modernizing" the socialist economic model of the island.