STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. President Raul Castro is calling on people to work harder and take advantage of Cuba's underused farmland. This announcement had some awkward timing. Raul Castro spoke yesterday at a rally marking the 56th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution.
NPR's Jason Beaubien was in the home province Raul and his brother Fidel, and has this report.
(Soundbite of man singing)
BEAUBIEN: Before dawn, tens of thousands of Cubans filed into an open plaza here, 450 miles east of Havana in the city Holguin, to listen as Raul Castro delivered the annual 26th of July speech. This yearly speech commemorates the start of Fidel Castro guerilla war to oust the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista, and the address serves as a Cuban version of the State of the Nation.
And the state of Cuba right now is dire. The communist country's trade deficit jumped 65 percent last year as the cost of imports, particularly of fuel and food, soared while exports dropped.
Raul Castro told the crowd that rebuilding Cuba's agricultural system is a matter of national security. In an effort to break the island's dependence on food imports, Raul launched a program last year to redistribute unused state-owned farmland to private farmers and small cooperatives. He told the crowd here in Holguin that half of Cuba's arable farmland is either fallow or underutilized.
President RAUL CASTRO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The land is there, the Cubans are here, Raul shouted pounding the podium.
Let's see if we can work better or not, if we can produce or not, if we can keep our word or not. It's not a question of crying motherland or death, down with Imperialism, the U.S. embargo pummels us and yet the land is there waiting for our efforts.
Raul says that more than 100,000 people have submitted applications for the land. About 80 percent of them have been approved involving more than a million acres. In contrast to his brother Fidel, who was known for speeches that could go on for hours, Raul's lasted just over 30 minutes. Fidel hasn't given a speech or been seen in public since he fell ill in 2006.
Raul, who officially became president last year, only bashed the administration in Washington briefly, complaining about the ongoing embargo and five Cuban intelligence officers who are in U.S. jails. The speech focused on Cuba and how Cubans can pull the country out of its economic woes.
(Soundbite of people talking)
BEAUBIEN: After the speech, Jose Luis Hidalgo and his wife Daisy were selling peanuts in small white cones of paper.
Mr. JOSE LUIS HIDALDO (Street vendor): (Spanish Spoken) Here everything is possible...
BEAUBIEN: Hidalgo said. Like most of the people I questioned after the speech, Hidalgo praised Raul and predicted the president's effort to pump life into Cuba's stagnant farms will be a success. When the people make the effort anything is possible he said.
Away from the plaza, some other Cubans said the plan is window dressing on a failing communist system. Cuban imported almost a billion dollars worth of goods from the U.S. last year, much of it food as the island's state-run farms falter.
Ms. DAISY HIDALDO (Street vendor): (Spanish Spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Hidalgo's wife, Daisy says there are always some Cubans who complain. She says they don't see the positive side of things. We are free she says. If we get sick at any time we can go to the hospital without worrying about getting assaulted on the way there. Our kids are safe at school. Despite crushing food and transportation shortages, she says Cubans have a good life.
BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Holguin, Cuba.