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HAVANA, Aug 10 2011 (IPS) - Five years have passed since the announcement by Fidel Castro that because of health problems he was “provisionally” delegating his responsibilities in the Cuban government to a group of five officials headed by his brother Raul until he was well enough to return to office. It would soon become evident that this return was not imminent, and before long Castro announced his withdrawal from active political life, though not from politics.

The absence of the leader of the 1959 revolution and the figure who for decades held the top positions in the country planted a question in the minds of the people: would Cuba be the same without Fidel? Today it may be possible to venture an answer, albeit one with certain Socratic overtones: Cuba today is both the same as it was under Fidel yet at the same time quite different.

While the essence of the Cuban socialist system and its political manifestation have not changed substantially, social structures and social thinking have undergone a violent transformation which is very visible in certain crucial areas: the government’s complete economic team (and not just economic) was replaced; there was an expansion and revival of freelance work; the potential of owning private property was introduced; a war on high-level corruption was initiated; and the state’s usual triumphalist rhetoric gave way to a more realistic tone. These were just some of the changes.

In these last five years the greatest transformation may have been the change from a political view of the economy to an economic view of politics. Revelations about the intense degree of the country’s chronic inefficiency created pressure for reform of its financial, productive, and commercial systems which was considered necessary for the survival of the political model.

There then followed the repeal of purely political measures that kept the government from collecting revenue (the ban on mobile phones and the sale of appliances and computers, the opening of tourist sites to Cuban citizens, etc) and other more profound steps, like a redistribution of unproductive state land to private producers and the opening of individual or family microbusinesses as a way of creating goods and resources, boosting state tax revenue, and generating jobs -just as the government was “discovering” that Cuba’s “full employment” hid the existence of more than a million workers who were paid without having real assignments.

To those of us who have lived in Cuba for all these years it is almost unbelievable that what was obvious has finally become public policy, with the elimination of deeply-rooted methods of social mobilisation: volunteer work, now recognised as unproductive and unprofitable; the student brigades that had to sacrifice part of their vacations doing work that they were not qualified to do and that generated more waste than benefits; and the middle schools located far from cities and designed to combine studying with physical labour, though ultimately the students learned neither academics, nor work skills, nor any kind of ethical or civil lesson.

In the area of pure politics, the most significant development of this last period was the liberation of more than fifty prisoners, most of whom had been arrested in spring 2003 and given long sentences. Thanks to the efforts of the Catholic church and with the mediation of Spain, about 90 percent of these ex-prisoners are now outside Cuba. The release provided Raul Castro’s government with a resolution of the political crisis caused by the death of Orlando Zapata on a hunger strike. It had threatened to grow more serious with the possible death of dissident Guillermo Farinas.

While this lowered the pressure on the political class, the crackdown on corrupt public officials intensified, and in 2011 alone 36 bureaucrats, including an ex-minister and ex-vice minister have been tried and found guilty.

But it was in April of this year during the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party that Raul Castro made the announcement that was to definitively characterise his way of doing politics: together with the order calling for a radical change in the thinking needed to govern, and live in, a country in the process of changing, he also announced the decision to limit the service of upper level government officials to two five-year terms. This change in both style and action, unprecedented in a single-party socialist state and more profound in its effect than anything that has happened thus far, seems to spell the end of one model of government and mode of public administration and a transition to another that could take any number of forms but is already different from that generated by Fidel Castro in his 46-plus years leading the country. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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