Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Raul Castro lifts economic hopes in Cuba

Raul Castro lifts economic hopes in Cuba

By Anthony BoadleTue Jul 31, 7:10 PM ET

One year after taking over from his ailing brother as Cuba's leader, Raul Castro is raising hopes of reforms to relieve economic inefficiencies and food shortages but he is not offering political change.

He became acting president last July 31 after his elder brother Fidel Castro had emergency stomach surgery, giving up power for the first time since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

For much of the last year, Raul Castro's main concern has been to preserve political stability under communist rule, and the U.S. government complained on Tuesday that there has been no move toward fair elections in Cuba.

"It's a year to the day since the senior dictator decided to hand off control of the country to the junior dictator. Unfortunately, I think that's made little difference in the lives of the Cuban people," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.

Raul Castro has, however, recently turned his attention to bread-and-butter issues. In a frank account of Cuba's most pressing problems, he acknowledged last week in his first Revolution Day speech that state salaries were clearly inadequate and agriculture absurdly inefficient.

He said more foreign investment was welcome in Cuba, and that structural changes were needed to produce more food and cut the country's reliance on costly imports.

"People feel encouraged. The speech shows that Raul is in charge now. Changes are coming," said a Havana maid who asked not to be named.

Her husband was less optimistic. "We've heard the same story for years. I can only afford vegetables on my pay, never meat," he said before his wife shut him up, saying he could be arrested.

Seven out of ten Cubans were born after the revolution and most people are looking to improve their economic lot more than change the one-party state.

With wages averaging just $14 a month, Raul Castro's focus on tough economic issues is a refreshing change for many Cubans after years of long-winded speeches by Fidel Castro.

"I hope Raul can fix this, because Cuba is a good country," said Armando Laferte, 42, leaning against a beat up 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline, rap music blaring from its two doors.

"We can't afford the things we most need, from toothpaste to tomato paste," he complained. "It's not only the economy that has to open up. Everything must."

REALISM

Fidel Castro, who turns 81 next month, has not appeared in public since he stepped aside. He has written a series of editorial columns in recent months but has shown no sign of returning to power and Raul Castro's authority appears to be growing by the day.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma had a photograph of Raul Castro on its front page on Tuesday while a new editorial by Fidel Castro on Cuba's performance at the Panamerican Games in Brazil was tucked deep inside on the sports pages.

Even dissidents welcomed Raul Castro's speech last week as a sign of realism brought to government by the 76-year-old defense minister.

"Raul's speech creates expectations and hope, but we should be cautious. There are hard-liners who are putting obstacles in the way of reform," said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, adding that the country is bankrupt.

In his apparent semi-retirement, Fidel Castro remains the formal head of state and some Cubans expect him to try to slow reforms that reduce the state's control over 90 percent of the economy.

While Raul Castro backed limited private initiative in the 1990s and is viewed as a pragmatic reformer, there is nothing to suggest he intends to follow China's path of opening up to a market economy under continued Communist Party rule.

Fidel Castro often railed against inefficiencies but his reform attempts were modest and he reined some in when he felt they might move Cuba too far away from the socialist path.

An economist working for the government said major reforms in agriculture are being drawn up and changes in property laws are also under study.

Some Cubans are optimistic they will soon be able to buy cellular phones, and freely buy and sell their cars and even their homes one day. Others say any change will come slowly.

"Raul has good intentions, but these problems have existed for so long," said one housewife on the dilapidated doorstep of her central Havana home.

"It has always been politics first, second and third, and only then the economy. I'd have to see change to believe it."

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