HAVANA — Moving to reduce dependence on costly food imports, President Raul Castro has authorized putting vacant farmland in private hands, communist Cuba's state media reported Friday.
"The maximum to be handed over to individuals who do not hold land is 13.42 hectares (33 acres), and for those who hold lands, as owners or designated workers, the amount can rise as high as 40.26 hectares (99 acres)," it said.
Of numerous reforms recent reforms, it is the one with the greatest potential economic impact to be unveiled since Castro, 77, took Cuba's helm in February from his ailing brother Fidel, 81, who founded the regime in 1959.
Previously, the only private landholdings allowed were small family plots held prior to 1959.
The government will make new land grants for 10 years, which can be renewed. Government agencies and cooperatives also may get 25-year grants. The grants cannot be transferred or sold to third parties.
"For various reasons there is a considerable percentage of state land sitting vacant, so it must be handed over to individuals or groups as owners or users, in an effort to increase production of food and reduce imports," the decree reads.
Officials say the fallow land is as much as half the country's farmland, despite food needs of the population of more than 11 million and of the tourism industry, a major hard-currency earner for the Americas' only one-party communist regime.
Raul Castro has told Cubans food production is a national security priority.
He recently told lawmakers that "all forms of property and production can coexist in harmony as none is in opposition to socialism."
Last week the president told Cubans to expect hard times from the effects of the international economic crisis, including greater government control of revenues and more work especially in the farming sector.
"It's my duty to speak frankly, because it would be unethical to create false expectations. To tell you otherwise would be misleading," Castro said in a televised speech at the close of the first regular National Assembly session.
"We can't avoid some impact on certain (basic) products and services," he said, explaining that the same amount of food Cuba imported in 2007 will cost an additional 1.1 billion dollars this year.
Castro called on Cubans to increase farming activities. "In other words: we must go back to the land! We have to make it work!"
There had been speculation, before Raul Castro officially became president, that the practical-minded general who has led a military with many business interests, might move Cuba toward China-style or Vietnam-style reforms.
But so far, his government has been cautious, despite the fact Cubans are extremely eager for change and better living standards. There has been no sign so far that the government is open to political pluralism of any kind.
Raul Castro also has implemented reforms that give farmers better pay and more flexibility to buy farming equipment.
Last week the government said it would allow private contractors such as taxi drivers back into Cuba's transport sector.
Raul Castro has allowed Cubans to buy computers, own mobile telephones, rent cars and spend nights in hotels previously only accessible to foreigners -- if they can afford such luxuries. The average salary is the equivalent of about 17 dollars a month.
The government also said last month it was scrapping salary caps long meant to underscore egalitarianism but which his administration says hurt productivity.
As Cuba eyes a shrinking population and worker base, lawmakers are planning to delay the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men, and from 55 to 60 for women. And on Friday, Raul Castro approved a plan to hire retired teachers to counter a shortage.