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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

We stay in Latin America for our next story about the economic turmoil in Cuba. Raul Castro's government plans to layoff more than half a million government workers over the next few months. The hope is that many will find jobs in the private sector, including farming.

Cuba imports some 70 percent of its food, despite an abundance of fertile farmland. And Castro is asking Cubans to go back to that land. Nick Miroff has our report.

NICK MIROFF: Two years ago, Aniley Peña was watching TV when she heard the offer. The government was giving out free 10-year leases on state-owned land to anyone willing to take a crack at farming. Today she has 12 acres on the outskirts of Bejucal, a small town 20 miles south of Havana.

Peña is 38, rugged enough to trudge around in rubber boots, but not too earthy to wear mascara in the fields. She shields herself from the withering sun with a parasol and a Nike cap, supervising a team of men as they mix organic fertilizer into beds of radishes, carrots, scallions, and spinach.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

MIROFF: This is Pena's tractor, a little red Ford from the Truman era she inherited from her late grandfather. She's called her farm Las Estrellas, The Stars. Stars are bright, and they bring clarity, she said, which is what this new vocation has given her.

ANILEY PENA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Being out here relaxes me, Pena says. Plus I know I'm doing something good for society, and also for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS GRUNTING)

MIROFF: Pena is the new face of Cuban socialism, a private entrepreneur with a sense of social responsibility. She was trained as a veterinarian, but like many here who aren't inspired by $20 a month government salaries, she dropped out of the workforce. Now she is working seven days a week and studying pest control methods at night. As part of her deal with the government, she'll give a third of her produce to the state, and sell the rest for a profit.

PENA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Having this land, you realize how productive it can be, Pena said. When you're growing your own food, you have independence, and that gives you a sense of security.

The Castro government has approved more than 100,000 applications for state land, but so far that hasn't led to an increase in food production. As usual, bureaucratic absurdities are to blame. Farmers here can't buy tractors or trucks without government permission. Irrigation equipment and tools have to be assigned by the state. Police checkpoints surround Havana to make sure no one is illegally sneaking produce into the city for sale on the black market.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLDERING)

MIROFF: This is the government's new solution. Pena's workers are soldering the door for a small fruit and vegetable stand along the highway, where she'll be able to sell directly to customers. They're popping up all over the island, as some Cubans are even getting back land that belonged to their families before it was nationalized in the early 1960s.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a dissident economist in Havana.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The reforms are a step forward, Espinosa Chepe said, but they're not going to fix the problem. Cuba needs more radical changes, he said, but the government is too scared to give up control.

There's an old joke here that if education, health care, and athletics are the Cuban Revolution's greatest achievements; then its three biggest failings are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In government supermarkets, where many Cubans can't even afford to shop, you'll find imported mango juice from Mexico, chicken from Brazil, and butter from Denmark. All could be easily produced locally.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING SOUND)

MIROFF: Lorenzo Ramos is making fertilizer here from decomposing sugar cane stalks. His five-acre plot was choked with garbage and thorny weeds when he got it a year ago. But with his machete and his rusting Soviet tractor, he and his wife have turned a wasteland into a tidy orchard of fruit tree saplings.

LORENZO RAMOS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Some fruit varieties have grown so scarce in Cuba that Raul Castro complained about their disappearance in a speech last year. Ramos has responded by planting rows of mangos, guavas, peaches, lemons, and prized delicacies like the guanabana, or custard apple.

RAMOS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Having a farm means coping with everything, Ramos says, ants, thunderstorms, scratches, hurricanes, waking up at dawn. It's sacrifice and hard work, but somebody has to do it, he says. We can't all be intellectuals, because then there'd be nothing to eat.

RAMOS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Ramos has put up a sign along the highway next to his farm, inspired by something Bolivia's President Evo Morales said on TV. Save Mother Earth, the sign reads, and Ramos is hoping to put his fruit stand right next to it.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff, in Bejucal, Cuba.

WERTHEIMER: And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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