Posted on Fri, Dec. 02, 2005
Castro vows to go after the 'new rich'
Cuban leader Fidel Castro pledged to battle corruption. In one example, thousands of college-age youths have become involved in fuel distribution by taking over gas stations and riding in tankers.
By MARC FRANK
(economist and recently released dissident, discussing Cuba's corruption crackdown)
Fidel Castro is mobilizing tens of thousands of young people and threatening a Cultural Revolution-style humiliation of corrupt officials in what the Cuban leader characterizes as a do-or-die struggle against graft, pilfering and the ``new rich.''
Oscar Espinosa, an economist and dissident recently released from prison, said the campaign would create more hardship and illegal activity. ''What we need here is market reform, like in China or Vietnam. By returning to command economics and repression, they are simply throwing gas on the fire,'' he said.
''What you have here is a classic Chinese-style, anti-rightist campaign of Mao's days,'' a foreign banker said.
Castro's initiative is part of a broader effort, government sources say, to make effective use of increased resources flowing into the country from generous Venezuelan energy financing and payment for medical services, as well as Chinese soft trade and development credits.
The first target of the campaign -- dubbed ''Operation July 26'' after Castro's movement in the late 1950s that brought him to power -- has been the country's fuel-distribution system.
Thousands of college-age youths have taken over petrol stations and started working in refineries and riding in fuel trucks to monitor an industry where up to half of this precious resource was being stolen, according to receipts since the takeover began a month ago.
Cuba registered its first balance-of-payments surplus since 1989 last year, and expects another surplus this year, despite an increase of more than 30 percent in imports.
''We need to get back to a situation where the state pays a wage that can meet basic needs and in proportion to what one contributes to society,'' says Anicia García, head of Havana University's Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
She points out that state salaries and pensions have increased on average by more than 20 percent this year and that there are more consumer goods, mainly imported household appliances, and food available.
''We are taking advantage of the better situation to deal with the social problems that appeared during the crisis that came with the end of the Soviet Union. For example, that one could do better not working than working, or as a hotel bellboy or gas-station attendant make more than a brain surgeon,'' she said.
The Communist party launched an assault two years ago on ''corruption and illegalities'' within its ranks and the state administration as it recentralized economic activity and control over hard currency after what it characterized as ''liberal errors'' in the 1990s.
Bureaucratic corruption and a booming black market are nothing new in state-run economies like Cuba's, but Castro said recently that market-oriented reforms such as decentralization, authorization of small private initiatives and circulation of the dollar alongside the peso, among other emergency measures taken after European communism's collapse, ``increased these ills to the point where they have taken on a certain massive character . . . and inequality has grown.''
Castro said he was mobilizing 26,000 young social workers to fight for a purer society and would mobilize more than 100,000 social workers and university students if needed, threatening to drag corrupt officials out in public.
Raúl Castro, the defense minister and second in the Cuban hierarchy after his older brother Fidel, is reported to have told party officials 18 months ago: ``Corruption will always be with us, but we must keep it at our ankles and never allow it to rise to our necks.''
But the drive apparently made little progress, and the military was forced to take over operations at the port of Havana in September to handle increased imports and stop theft by port workers and truckers.
''In this battle against vice, nobody will be spared,'' Fidel Castro said in a recent speech, apparently taking over the campaign from his brother. ``Either we defeat all these deviations and make our revolution strong, or the revolution dies.''
He blamed the ''new rich'' for Cuba's social ills, without defining who they were, except that they had access to hard currency.
The Cuban leader said social workers were organizing cells in neighborhoods to fight corruption and illegalities.