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CUBA: Gradual Changes But No Surprises, A Year On

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jul 30 2007 (IPS) - A year after the announcement that changed life in Cuba in the blink of an eye, this Caribbean island nation continues to defy, as it has so often in the past, expectations about the present and future of its socialist system.

Inexplicably, in the eyes of many people around the world, and even at times for those who live here, Cuban socialism has survived a four-decade U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc.

The same sense of wonder greeted the calm that followed the Jul. 31, 2006 announcement that President Fidel Castro had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was temporarily handing over the reins to his brother, Defence Minister Raúl Castro.

What initially seemed impossible has become simply normal. While foreign analysts have endlessly speculated on whether or not Fidel Castro will return to power, Cubans appeared to swiftly adapt to the new role taken on by the convalescing leader, who has become a sort of columnist for the country’s main newspaper, Granma.

"I believe that only outside of Cuba do people talk about whether or not Fidel will return," Raúl Díaz, a retired member of the military, told IPS. "Here, although it is not said out loud, we know it is unlikely that he will ever be like he was before. The important thing is that we have him here, giving us his opinions on the most important questions, while others do the hard work."

More than 30 articles by Fidel Castro have been published since the creation of his column, Reflexiones del Comandante en Jefe, in Granma last April. His writing has kept him active and in the public eye since the start of the intestinal illness that brought him to the brink of death a year ago Tuesday.

Rosendo Ruiz, who sells artwork at a Havana street fair, said "everything is the same" in Cuba.

But Helena Álvarez, who owns a small private restaurant, said the inspectors have "bothered" her less frequently over the past few months, although she complained about the sharp drop in tourism and her subsequent fall in income.

The more lenient working conditions that Álvarez says small privately-run businesses have been experiencing could be one sign that, although gradually and without fanfare, some things are changing for the better in this socialist country of 11.2 million people.

A significant decline in the number of mass rallies, brief, clear speeches, respect for the scheduling of Cubans’ favourite TV programmes, and greater room for criticism in the Communist Party-controlled national press are some of the signs of a working style that Cubans have begun to identify with Raúl Castro.

"They speculate about an alleged paralysis in the country and even about a ‘transition’ in progress. But no matter how hard they close their eyes, reality shall take care of destroying those stale, old dreams," the acting president said in his Jul. 26 Revolution Day address.

After naming a long list of achievements, Castro mentioned the need for "a clear conscience about our problems, our inefficiencies, our errors and our bureaucratic and/or slack attitudes."

He also referred to the need "to change concepts and methods which were appropriate at one point but have been surpassed by life itself."

"We must never fall prey to the idea that what we do is perfect but rather examine it again," he added.

He also promised to avoid the tendency, common in the past, to automatically expand to the entire nation an initiative that was successful in a specific geographic location or segment of society.

Among the measures that have been adopted so far, with little press coverage, are the payment of debts owed to agricultural producers by the state; an increase in the prices that the state pays members of farming cooperatives or private farmers; and a new system to get milk supplies to the population more efficiently.

As "key" elements, Raúl Castro mentioned the need to boost agricultural and industrial production, eliminate imports "whenever it is rational to do so," and capitalise on good and bad experiences from the recent past to foment foreign investment in order to provide capital, technology and markets.

"Any increase in wages or decrease in prices, to be real, can only stem from greater and more efficient production and provision of services, which will increase the country&#39s income. No one, no individual or country, can afford to spend more than what they have," said the interim leader.

Other challenges to be faced are in the areas of housing, transport and tourism, an industry that was hit hard by the restrictions and financial measures applied by the government in 2004 in response to a U.S. plan to press for political changes in this country.

The removal of the U.S. dollar from circulation at the time drove up the cost of tourism in Cuba and hurt the large proportion of Cubans who receive remittances from family members living in the United States as well as those who make a living providing services, including lodging or meals, to foreign visitors.

According to an economist who spoke to IPS, one of the toughest immediate challenges faced by the government on the economic front is how to deal with the effects that the removal of the dollar from circulation has had on the Cuban population.

He also said it is necessary to reconsider the government’s policy on private enterprise and the very limited role it currently plays in providing some services that the state has been unable to guarantee efficiently over the past decade.

Other issues that should be discussed are the opening of tourism facilities to Cubans and more flexible regulations on emigration, travel abroad, and trips to Cuba by Cubans living overseas, said journalist Soledad Cruz in an article in the Cuban daily Juventud.

An intense debate on Cuba’s cultural policy broke out early this year among intellectuals and academics, initially in the form of an ongoing email conversation. Unlike the wall of silence that surrounded sensitive cultural issues in the past, Cuba has begun to open up to public discussions on questions like violence against women, the rights of sexual minorities, and the problems facing vulnerable groups.

"A problem that has not been identified is like a problem that does not exist, while on the contrary a problem that is correctly identified already has a key to help work towards a solution," historian Jesús Guanche told IPS, referring to a draft law that would grant equal rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples.

Meanwhile, civil society sectors have called for greater openness to dialogue, in order to allow increased citizen participation in domestic politics and in the search for solutions for a wide range of social problems.

"The future does not lie in closing ourselves in, but in opening ourselves up, without losing the essential aspects of our goals," Baptist preacher Raimundo García, director of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, which promotes analysis of issues like human rights, reconciliation and conflict resolution, commented to IPS.

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