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Cuba names new ag minister in farming shake-up

Cuba has appointed a top army general to head the Agricultural Ministry at a time when the country faces food shortages and is dramatically restructuring its farming sector to boost production.

Gen. Ulises Rosales del Toro, once a member of Fidel Castro's rebel army, had been sugar minister since 1997.

The Council of State, the communist-run island's supreme governing body, moved Rosales del Toro to agricultural minister and broadened his duties to include overseeing park reforestation and the breeding and raising of cattle and other farm animals, according to a statement read on government-controlled television Tuesday.

The statement said the decision was "strategic" and made to strengthen food production across the island, which was crippled by Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, all of which hit Cuba this year and combined to cause more than $10 billion in damage and crippled food production in many areas across the island.

Even before the hurricanes, Cuba was shifting much of the control of government-run farms from Agricultural Ministry officials in Havana to local farming boards to boost productivity and put more idle farmland into cultivation.

Cuba says this year's sugar harvest yielded 28 percent more cane than in 2007, enough to meet the island's domestic demand for the first time in six years.

Sugar was long Cuba's key export crop, with yields of up to 8 million metric tons (9 million tons) during the 1980s. But facing plummeting demand by 2002, the island slashed production, reducing its number of sugar mills from 156 to 61.

Two-thirds of land once occupied by cane began to be used to grow food, raise cattle and plant forests, under the control of the Sugar Ministry. Tuesday's announcement said that within six months all non-cane related activities would be transferred to the Agricultural Ministry.

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