Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cubans shun government's low-paying jobs

Miami Herald
Posted on Sat, May. 31, 2008
Cubans shun government's low-paying jobs

Loraicys is 27 years old and has never held a job. She is not alone.

As Raúl Castro embarks on an ambitious plan to kick-start the communist nation's economy, he faces a daunting challenge: Many Cubans simply do not work.

Decades of measly salaries and vast government subsidies have kept many young people off the labor rolls because it's more lucrative to hustle on the street. Others live comfortably enough off money sent from Miami and elsewhere.

Loraicys turns down neighborhood janitor positions in hopes of higher-paying work at nearby resort hotels, where she also could earn tips in dollars.

''I am not going to tell you something different. There are jobs here in Cárdenas where I live. Doing what? Cleaning hospitals for 150 pesos [$7] a month,'' said Loraicys, a single mother. ``For 150 pesos, I would rather stay home with my kid. I am willing to work really hard -- but not for nothing in return.''

While Cuba struggles to increase productivity, it must also find a way to entice hundreds of thousands of people to get a job. The dilemma is one of the profound systemic difficulties Castro faces as he tries to create a so-called modern socialist economy.


The government says there are plenty of jobs -- just low-paying ones Cubans won't take. Even educated professionals would rather work in the tourist industry as waiters or taxi drivers, which earns them far more money than state jobs that usually offer about $10 a month.

Loraicys said she has blanketed all the state agencies that run tourist resorts near her home with résumés, but she lacks the high school diploma required for even menial work. So she spends most days hanging out in front of her house, watching horse-drawn buggies go by in this colonial city east of Havana known as Ciudad Bandera, because it is where the national flag was first raised on May 19, 1850.

''If Raúl Castro wants to crack down on people who do not work, then he should offer real jobs,'' Loraicys said. ``Don't you think people would prefer to have independence, to have something they can be proud of?''

Officially, Cuban government figures show its unemployment rate is just 1.9 percent, the lowest in Latin America. At the same time, government statistics show just 4.8 million of the 6.7 million working-age people are ''economically active.'' And a survey conducted by the state-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper showed that just in Guantánamo province, on the eastern tip of the island, there were 18 times more unemployed people than official figures reflected.

The National Bureau of the Young Communists League said 90 percent of unemployed youths would like to go to school or work if they found ``acceptable options.''


According to Granma, the communist party newspaper:

• 20 percent of the working-age population in Havana is unemployed.

• Nearly half of them turn down jobs when they are offered.

• 17 percent of the more than 17,000 recent technical school graduates did not show up for the jobs they were offered. Another 200 of them stopped coming in after a few months.

''Unfortunately there is not an inconsiderable segment of our society that wants to live without working and considers that through the black market, it will have everything by living off of others,'' Granma editor Lázaro Barredo wrote in a recent editorial.

When Raúl Castro took office on Feb. 24, he announced an increase in state pensions and wages. In April, economic commentator Ariel Terrero said on state television that the government would lift caps on wages, an important shift that defied the socialist ideology that long dictated policy here.

''For the first time, it is clearly and precisely stated that a salary does not have a limit, that the roof of a salary depends on productivity,'' Terrero said, according to The Associated Press.

He added that he did not view this as a violation of socialism, but rather ``from each according to his work to each according to his ability.''

Many Cubans told The Miami Herald they did not work because it just was not worth it. The dual currency system, which pays state salaries in nearly worthless pesos and sells most consumer goods in a dollar-based tender called the CUC, means average salaries don't cover the cost of basic goods such as shoes, which can cost three times as much as a $10 monthly wage.


Eduardo, 30, a stagehand who got his first job four years ago, said most of his friends worked for the first time when they were in their late 20s -- after emigrating to Florida.

''Why was I going to work? The money they would pay me was not going to meet my needs,'' he said. ``My mother in Orlando sent me $100 a month, and with that I was set.''

Experts say Castro needs to overhaul the pay scheme to give Cubans the incentive to work.

'In their work life, Cubans have two approaches to labor. In the state sector, for many, their attitude is: `They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,' '' said Archibald Ritter, who teaches about the Cuban economy at Carleton University in Canada. ``Yet they will even pay to get jobs where it's possible to get bribes or steal. Lots of Cubans work hard. They work very hard at quasi-legal, unofficial activities.''

Ritter said the government has to create opportunities for more people to run private businesses and have clear incentives to produce and earn more coveted CUCs.

''For decades, Cuba tried to create the new socialist man, and what they created instead was a nation of entrepreneurs,'' he said.

Even as wages increase, laws on the books are intended to stimulate productivity. As interim president, Raúl Castro mandated efficiency at the workplace and instituted penalties for people who were late or did not stay their full shift.

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

End of Cuba's ‘tourist apartheid' leaves vast racial divide

Miami Herald

Posted on Thu, May. 29, 2008
End of Cuba's ‘tourist apartheid' leaves vast racial divide
Edis is accustomed to getting chased off tourist beaches.

Looking to make money braiding tourists' hair on Varadero, she parks herself on a patch of sand between tourist hotels to avoid trespassing. Then she gives security guards a knowing nod that seals their illegal pact: For every $30 she earns, a guard will get six.

''They like to keep the Cubans and the tourists separate,'' Edis explains. ``I have been taken to jail four times. I don't consider myself to be a criminal. I am just struggling to live.''

Shortly after becoming Cuba's leader three months ago, Raúl Castro ruled that locals could stay at tourist hotels and visit exclusive beaches -- ending a long-standing policy that Cubans found inherently unfair, never mind unconstitutional. Heralded as the end of ''tourist apartheid,'' the measure was the first in a series of steps Castro took to address Cubans' biggest grievances.

While the island's 11.2 million residents are now free to blow their savings at exclusive resorts in Varadero -- a tourist mecca 60 miles east of Havana -- reality is more complicated. Hotel stays can cost $30 to $200 a night, and with salaries averaging $17 a month, few Cubans can take the government up on the opportunity.

So beaches here remain filled with Europeans and Canadians, and women like Edis walk the seashore in search of work, tips and handouts.


The result is a vast racial divide that stretches along the Cuban shoreline.

Mostly white foreigners are on hotel lounge chairs -- while mostly black Cuban women walk along the beach dodging security. They are professional panhandlers thinly veiled as hairstylists who come empty-handed each weekend and leave with bags of hotel shampoo, clothing donated by tourists and, if they are lucky, at least $24 for doing someone's hair.

''The security guard over there knows I'm here, and if he has not said anything to me, it's because he is waiting for the $6 he will get,'' said Edis, who rises at 5:30 a.m. for the three-hour journey from her home in central Matanzas. ``What I do on the beach is struggle. The lower-class people come here to talk to the tourists -- to ask for things -- because we have a lot of needs.''


Edis and others in the same predicament had hoped the new rules allowing Cubans to use the beach and hotels would compel security guards to let them do their work, even if earning dollars not sanctioned by the government remains prohibited.

For these women, the new permission that allows Cubans to cross the invisible barrier -- which has long separated the western end of Varadero where Cubans congregate from the resorts reserved for tourists -- is something of a joke.

''Supposedly we have the right to use the beach now,'' said Elisa, who was with her daughters seeking hair-braiding customers. ``As long as I stay here in the water -- that's true -- nobody bothers me. But the second I step my foot on the sand and approach the hotel, boom, the security guards will sweep down and kick me out of here.

''That's how it was last year, and that's how it is now,'' she said.

After taking office Feb. 24, Castro spent his first months on the job enacting consumer-related measures that permitted not just hotel stays, but also the sale of cellular telephones, DVD players, microwave ovens and computers.

A select class of Cubans who have tourist-industry jobs, run illegal businesses or have relatives in the United States who send remittances have flocked to stores to take advantage of the new purchase rules.


Even while consumer goods are flying off store shelves, most Cubans interviewed by The Miami Herald said a $150 hotel stay is a luxury that is hard to justify -- even if Castro scored political points.

''Cubans found the hotel prohibition offensive,'' said Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University. ``Lifting that prohibition is not going to change Cuba very much, but it removes the sense of feeling they are in a prison. Not living under those circumstances, it's hard to imagine how important that is.''


Other Cuba watchers agree that even though most Cubans are excluded from Castro's consumer reforms, he has succeeded in gaining political capital -- even if he risks later creating a racial and class divide.

''Being able to stay at hotels is symbolically and psychologically important,'' said Katrin Hansing, interim associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. 'It has given Cubans a sense of `now we can.' People feel free -- it's the weirdest thing. This is something they wanted to do forever, and now they can.''


Hansing, who recently returned from living for about 10 years in Cuba, warned that Castro is taking a bit of a gamble.

''The rates are outrageous, so this is going to be a short-term euphoria,'' Hansing said. ``Who has money and who does not is going to become more visible. People who don't are often not white. This could get problematic.''

The measure to allow Cubans to stay at hotels also raises questions as to how the government will be able to control prostitution. Some Cuban women, dubbed jineteras, earn a living by finding foreign ''boyfriends'' who buy them gifts. Until now, those relationships were generally restricted to hotel lobbies.

In the past, Cuban guests were not allowed into a guest's room. Now, they can go up, but they must register with the front desk, even if the foreigner is paying the bill.

''Now the girls come in with the foreigners, and it's not my problem,'' said a Havana hotel doorman who said he was not authorized to give his name. 'You know what I say? `Have a nice evening.' I'm sure that later, when she pops up two or three times on hotel registries, it will be a problem. But not with me.''


Yadeli, a security guard at a Varadero hotel, said he has seen three Cubans stay at his luxury resort in the three months since Castro lifted the ban.

''That new law helps maybe four cats,'' he said, using the Spanish expression for ''very few people.'' ``As I do the math, I see I will never be one of those cats. I make $22 a month, and a room here is $150.''

So he spends his day on the beach in a necktie, stopping Cubans who try to enter his hotel.

''It's not that as Cubans you can't walk up and down this beach. You can walk up and down all you like,'' he said. ``I just want to know what you are doing, and I would stop you from coming inside if you are not a guest.''


Beatriz, 30, knows exactly what Yadeli means.

''They are letting more Cubans on the beach now. Look around; you'll see some,'' she said a few minutes after being questioned by a guard. ``But if security sees you talking to somebody, forget it. So we can be on the beach; we just have to keep walking.''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some of the people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.

Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line

Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond Party Line

by Tom Gjelten

All Things Considered, May 28, 2008 · In Cuba, the daily newspapers are all owned and run by the government or the Communist Party. For years, speeches by Fidel Castro were splashed across Page 1, and barely a critical word was published. But Fidel's brother Raul, who has taken over as president, is now allowing more debate in the Cuban press, and one party-affiliated newspaper is rising to the challenge.

Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) was founded in 1965 as the newspaper of the Communist Youth movement in Cuba. Throughout its existence, the publication mostly has featured whatever dreary "news" party leaders wanted published.

But in recent months, Juventud Rebelde reporters have been encouraged to think like journalists and investigate what's not working in their country.

The newspaper recently ran a critical three-part series on Cuban agriculture. Reporter Dora Perez and a colleague spent weeks talking to farmers and farm workers across the country. They wanted to find out why Cuba, with all its rich farmland, has to import so much food.

"[We heard] nothing but complaints," Perez says. "Our report was very critical. We're bad in agriculture, and we have to say so."

Three months later, Perez followed up with another investigative series, this one on education in Cuba. She found out that many Cuban parents were so unhappy with the quality of their kids' schooling that they were hiring private tutors — something once unthinkable here.

An Unprecedented Approach

For years, Fidel Castro told Cubans that their problems were the result of the U.S. trade embargo, the loss of Soviet aid or globalization: There was always an excuse. But Herminio Camacho, deputy editor of Juventud Rebelde, says it's time for Cuba to acknowledge its own failings.

"These articles aim at raising people's awareness," Camacho says. "People need to know that things don't have to be like this here. We're bringing up problems that can't be blamed on our shortages, or on outside forces, or the embargo, or the world situation."

For a Cuban communist newspaper, this editorial approach is unprecedented. Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, is impressed by what he has seen in Juventud Rebelde over the past two years — even though the scope is limited and the paper is still under government control.

"You now have Cuban journalists actually going out and documenting facts and contradicting official versions of the facts," Peters says.

In one notable example, Juventud Rebelde reporters determined that Cuban authorities were grossly underreporting the number of unemployed youth, especially in the countryside. In one province, they found it was 18 times higher than what the government claimed.

Habits Hard to Break as Journalists Seek Independence

Such stories are still the exception in Juventud Rebelde, not the norm. More common are the stories that simply quote government functionaries uncritically. Editor Camacho says he and his reporters are still finding their way.

"We've made progress, but we have a ways to go, because our reporters have been conditioned to think in a certain way," he says. "They have inertia in their thinking. This kind of journalism we're trying to do is hard for us. Throughout our whole lives, we've done it in a different way."

In an effort to break old journalistic habits, Camacho and his fellow editors have eliminated the beat structure at Juventud Rebelde. Reporters now are generalists, not specialists.

"Journalists who take charge of one particular issue can lose their broader vision," Camacho explains. "They develop a close relationship with whoever they're covering, because they see them day after day. It makes it harder to be critical. In order to do this kind of journalism, we had to change that structure."

Stopping Short of Challenging Communist Tenets

What's notable is that Camacho is thinking like a newspaper editor in a democratic society and not as a propaganda boss, which is the role editors in communist countries have more typically played.

His paper stops well short of challenging the ideology of Cuban communism. But for a party organ even to raise sensitive questions could have unforeseeable consequences in a tightly controlled totalitarian state. Some of the paper's recent reporting touches on key elements of the socialist system, such as the state-owned companies that now control every aspect of economic life in Cuba.

"Their reporters went out and documented that a lot of the state enterprises just do not work," notes Peters of the Lexington Institute. "[They found] that there's no functioning supply system and that the enterprises actually exploit and cheat Cuban consumers. It was unbelievable."

Peters, who has been reading the Cuban press for years, says such reporting never appeared during the time Fidel Castro ruled Cuba.

"If Fidel Castro talked about these state enterprises, they were paragons of socialist virtue," Peters says. "It was, 'This is what we live for.' He would always contrast [Cuban] state enterprises with the exploitations that occur in capitalist societies."

Fidel Castro Expresses Displeasure

Indeed, Fidel Castro apparently doesn't much like the pro-reform ideas aired recently in Juventud Rebelde and a few other media. In a newspaper column published last month under the title "Do Not Make Concessions to Enemy Ideology," Castro lashed out at critics of Cuban socialism. "People must be very careful with everything they say," he warned.

Castro, whose mental and physical condition remains a mystery, said he was responding to a comment in one of Cuba's media outlets. He didn't say which one, and Juventud Rebelde editor Camacho says he got immediately nervous it was his paper.

"I'll admit it," Camacho says, "the first reaction I had was to worry. This was Fidel pointing his finger at someone. He's not president of the country anymore, but we still see him as the leader of the revolution."

In discussing Castro's commentary, Camacho was noticeably uncomfortable, speaking slowly and stopping several times to choose his words carefully. For nearly 50 years, Fidel Castro has been all-powerful in Cuba, able on his own authority to squash careers or send people to prison for the rest of their lives.

"For us, a criticism from Fidel is …" Camacho begins, but he does not finish the sentence. "It's more than just the fear. Among other things, we feel in some way like we must be violating his wishes."

Following Castro's critical column, Camacho says he and his fellow editors resolved to be more "responsible." A fully reported article on the shortcomings of the economic reform program was not published.

Despite Skeptics, Paper Forges Ahead with New Direction

Some writers who have broken their ties with the government are skeptical that Juventud Rebelde can be much of a force for change. Independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, who writes an opposition blog in Cuba, says he is impressed by some of the reporters working at the paper. But he does not see them as allies in the fight for democracy and free expression in Cuba.

"Any professionally aware journalist could write something that coincides with what I'm saying, but they wouldn't be doing so intentionally," he explains. Escobar is working deliberately for political change in Cuba. The Juventud Rebelde reporters are just trying to be journalists.

Shortly after Perez wrote her series on education in Cuba, she got a congratulatory e-mail from Adelaida Fernandez, a prominent Cuban writer. Fernandez had delivered a highly critical speech on Cuban education at a convention of Cuban writers and artists, and in her opening words she cited the Juventud Rebelde stories by Perez.

"I was very proud," Perez says. "One of the best things about being a journalist is when you know that what you write actually reaches people and moves them." It was hardly a radical thought, but coming from a reporter at a Communist Party newspaper in Havana, it was noteworthy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ricky Ricardo: The 'Mr. Babalu' Next Door

Ricky Ricardo: The 'Mr. Babalu' Next Door

by Felix Contreras
NPR Weekend Edition
Sunday, May 18, 2008 · When I Love Lucy appeared in 1951, mainstream America knew very little about Latino culture.

Ricky Ricardo changed all that: His heavily accented English — and his rapid-fire Spanish — were as new to some parts of the country as TV itself.

And then there was the music. Ricky Ricardo may have been a fictional character, but he played very real music.

I've been playing congas for 35 years, and I can't tell you the number of times people have come up to my drums, unable to resist trying out a drumroll and crooning the opening phrase of Ricky's signature "Babalu."

Of course like everything else about him, Ricky Ricardo's version of "Babalu" was a mix of fact and fiction.

Art that Imitated Life

Ricky Ricardo was based on the very real Cuban bandleader and vocalist who played him: Desiderio Arnaz y de Acha, or Desi Arnaz.

Ricky was from Havana; Desi was from Santiago de Cuba. Ricky emigrated to New York, Desi to Miami. Ricky married Lucy McGillicuddy; Desi married Lucille Ball. Ricky's wife wanted desperately to be in show business; Desi's wife was already a successful radio and film actress. Ricky eventually owned a nightclub; Desi eventually owned TV and movie studios.

So it only took a few changes for I Love Lucy's writers to turn Desi into Ricky. Says 81-year-old trumpeter Tony Terran: "They retained much of his character and his emotional side."

Terran is the last surviving member of the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, the band that backed Ricky in that I Love Lucy nightclub. Terran says that, while Ricky may have been fictional, his band was very real.

The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra was made up mostly of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which had been playing in ballrooms and theaters around the country when not performing on Bob Hope's radio show.

Yet many in Hollywood had their doubts about a TV show based on all-American girl married to a Latino. The band's musicians felt differently.

"I think the general feeling in the band was that it was quite a venture," Terran says. "It made some sense to us — we didn't have the same doubts that CBS had."

'Playing to Americanos' in Glamorous Venues

After all, Terran says, many popular orchestras back then were designed for mass appeal, alternating between swing and Latin rhythms, with vocalists singing in both English and Spanish.

Desi Arnaz got his start in the late 1930s, with a band led by an early Latin crossover success, Xavier Cugat. Arnaz wrote in his autobiography that he patterned his own band after Cugat's. Terran agrees, saying the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra played the same kind of music.

"We were commercial," Terran says. "We were more for TV."

"It was corny but commercial," says Johnny Rodriguez Jr. "I mean, it wasn't the hip Latin music."

Rodriguez, a percussionist, remembers both kinds of orchestras. His father played in both Latin bands and so called "society bands" in New York in the late 1940s. The younger Rodriguez got his start at age 17, with Tito Puente in 1962.

He says he heard from his dad, and from older musicians in Puente's band, that there were plenty of rewards for orchestras like Ricky Ricardo's.

"They weren't [playing] the standard Latin gigs," Rodriguez stresses. "It was upper end, the better-paying jobs. This is Broadway, this is the Paramount Theatre, Roxy Theatre — this is not the Palladium, not a Latin club. I'm talking about playing to Americanos."

A Hit with Exotic Roots — And a Singer who Felt Familiar

Millions of Americanos tuned into I Love Lucy, and most of them probably didn't realize that Ricky Ricardo's signature song was a tribute to an Afro-Cuban god.

"Babalu," written by Cuban composer Margarita Lecuona, is about Babalu-Aye, one of the seven main gods of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. It was first recorded by Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdes in 1941 — and among fans of more traditional Latin music, Valdes was the real Mr. Babalu.

Latin music fans will also say Ricky Ricardo was probably not the most authentic Afro-Cuban percussionist but John Rodriguez says that was OK.

"I remember my dad saying that he was a terrible conga player," John Rodriguez says. "You'd see him playing on TV, and ... the way they staged it, it looked good. And that's all that mattered."

It mattered because TV, and Ricky Ricardo, helped spread the word about Latin music across the country.

TV had this show, and had this Latin music, on a regular basis every week," says Fordham University sociology professor Clara Rodriguez. "They were the No. 1 show for 6 years."

She points out that folks in the U.S. got their first taste of Latin music from films of the 1940s, featuring Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz' old boss, Xavier Cugat.

But while those film stars were exotic, TV's Ricky Ricardo had much more in common with Middle America.

"He played a Latino who had a steady job; they lived a middle-class way of life," Rodriguez says. "He was the man ... who was the bread winner in the family. ... So he introduced a character which wouldn't have been very different if he had not been ethnic."

Ricky Ricardo was easy for non-Latins to accept. But I've often wondered whether or not this Latino Everyman would have been as successful a band leader as his real-life counterpart, Desi Arnaz, was in the television business.

Tony Terran, who worked with both men, the real one and the fictional one, says yes.

"If," Terran says, "Lucy wouldn't get him in trouble all the time."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cuba: US embargo blocking wider internet access

AP/Miami Herald

Posted on Fri, May. 16, 2008
Cuba: US embargo blocking wider internet access
A top Cuban official said Friday that Raúl Castro's government would consider loosening Internet restrictions on ordinary citizens newly allowed to purchase computers -- but Washington's decades-old economic embargo makes it impossible.

''We aren't worried about the citizenry connecting from their homes,'' Telecommunications Vice Minister Boris Moreno told a small group of reporters.

''But problems with technology and resources have made it necessary to give priority to connections that guarantee the country's social and economic development,'' he said, referring to an islandwide network that lets Cubans receive e-mail and view domestic Web sites.

The rest of the worldwide Web is blocked to most citizens in Cuba, which has access controls far stricter than in China or Saudi Arabia. Only foreigners and some government employees and academics are currently allowed unfiltered home Internet service, and many Cubans turn to the black market for expensive, slow dial-up accounts.

Computers for home use were also not available until two weeks ago, when state stores began selling them to the public as part of a series of small quality-of-life changes since Raúl Castro replaced his elder brother Fidel in February.

But Moreno said the government is unable to offer Cubans comprehensive Internet for their new PCs, citing its long-standing complaint that the American embargo prevents it from getting service directly from the United States nearby through underwater cables. Instead, Cuba gets Internet service through less reliable satellite connections, usually from faraway countries including Italy and Canada.

''Free access is not on the table at the moment,'' Moreno said.

Moreno said that in the next two years authorities hope to link to fiber-optic service from Venezuela, which has replaced the Soviet Union as Havana's chief economic benefactor.

He also criticized Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose posts about the struggles of daily life on the island have drawn worldwide notice and recently won her Spain's Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism.

Moreno said the 32-year-old Sanchez was deeply affected by coming of age during the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the Cuban economy to its knees. He said he found it sad that she ``speaks ill of a government that didn't close the university where she studied in a moment of crisis.''

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cuba's two-currency system adds up to a social divide

LA Times
Cuba's two-currency system adds up to a social divide
Those who earn the old peso are seeing its purchasing power decline. To them, powdered milk and sweet potatoes are luxuries.
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 8, 2008

HAVANA — Pushed to the fringes by a money-driven social divide, Rosa is what Cubans call a "marginal" person.

She's lived all of her 72 years in a shabby enclave of Marianao, a neighborhood where crude wooden cottages, their rotting boards held together with coats of paint, descend into a gully strewn with refuse and sewage.

Her two-room shack was an early gift of the revolution, back when the idealistic brigades of social levelers were at work lifting the poor and teaching the long-neglected how to read and write and care for their children. Rosa's sturdy metal-framed eyeglasses, a more recent state handout, magnify tired gray eyes that turn to Cuba's three state-run channels for diversion now, having lost the desire to read because of a dearth of books and practice.

Widowed 22 years and left with only a tethered mongrel named Mochito for company, Rosa is among the considerable ranks of Cubans in the country's population of 11.2 million who find themselves lost in poverty as the flow of money from trade, tourism and the black market has broken its once-egalitarian foundation.

The problems faced by Rosa and others like her, complicated by factors such as the country's loss of Soviet aid years ago, appear to be getting worse. Cuba's system of two currencies may be at least partly to blame.

Cuba uses the dominant convertible peso known as the CUC -- introduced four years ago to replace the U.S. dollar, which had been circulating for more than a decade -- and the Cuban peso known as moneda nacional.

Those with jobs in hotels, airlines and shops and on the thriving black market earn CUCs, referred to as "the dollar" and worth about 25 times the peso. The peso is the currency given to all state workers and pensioners, which must be converted to CUCs to purchase most goods. The Cuban government retains the peso because it lacks sufficient foreign reserves to back and circulate only CUCs.

The U.S. dollar, which circulated in Cuba from the mid-1990s to late 2004, was removed by then-President Fidel Castro and now is subject to a 10% tax whenever it is converted to CUCs -- in effect a devaluation by the state. The tax is felt most by tourists and the estimated 10% of Cuban households receiving money from relatives abroad.

Those like Rosa, who have neither foreign benefactors nor the vigor to run their own dollar-earning schemes, watch the buying power of their moneda nacional recede each month as more goods become available only for "dollars."

Rosa survives on her late husband's 164-peso monthly pension, about $7, and the ever-shrinking basket of staples issued by the state each month.

"The rice is gone in 10 days, and then only if I'm careful," laments the widow, stout from a diet of bread rolls and rice. "What I have after the electricity is paid I spend on food, nothing else."

Like many Cubans, Rosa won't tell a foreigner her full name for fear of official retribution, although it's difficult to imagine how her circumstances could worsen.

Dressed in a faded blue floral dress worn thin as a hankie, beige socks and flip-flops advertising Cuba, she spends her days washing the concrete-slab floor of her hovel and cooking rice for her two daily meals.

For the first four days of each month, she boils a single cup of coffee at midday from the quarter-pound packet that is her most treasured item in the ration basket. She quickly uses the two cups of beans, the small bottle of cooking oil and the single chicken leg.

Once the ration of rice runs out, she must convert her pesos to CUCs to buy food for the rest of the month. She subsists mostly on rice simmered in bouillon, along with the single white bread roll she can collect each morning from the state bakery at the top of her alley.

Her joy, she says, is having a few precious minutes with one of her eight grandchildren on the rare occasion when her daughter or one of her two sons can take time from their own daily scramble for sustenance to visit. Another reprieve is sweet potatoes, to break the monotony of her meals, an indulgence she affords herself once a week if nothing has come up to divert her meager funds.

She takes her rice from a chipped earthenware bowl as she sits on a lumpy, sheet-covered sofa, the black-and-white TV in the corner switched to one of the three state channels. She pays little attention to which one it is tuned to; often all carry the same official speech or cultural program.

A two-burner gas hot plate on the dented metal counter is the only appliance in the kitchen. A small fridge, dotted with plastic beer-bottle magnets, stands kitty-cornered in the sitting room, unplugged to save on the power bill as there is seldom anything perishable in it. A towel draped across the top displays a collection of white ceramic figurines and a candle. A scrawny calico cat she never bothered to name probes the scrubbed floor in fruitless pursuit of a dropped morsel.

Scavenging her sustenance is both an ordeal and an occupation for Rosa. For all but the few grains and tubers that can be bought with the old pesos, she must change her monthly pension for CUCs.

The nearest market is about a mile away, a trying journey for a woman with diabetes, hypertension and depression. Rice was only 12 cents a pound recently, but she goes through half that much a day after the ration runs out, and it costs her nearly a quarter of her monthly pension. Vegetables and fruits are only a few pesos a pound or apiece, but they consume most of the rest of her money.

Powdered milk is an unimaginable luxury at more than $7 for enough to make a gallon, and even the least desirable cuts of meat thick with flies on the butcher block cost nearly $2 a pound. The single serving of chicken and six eggs provided in the ration are usually her only protein.

The closest clinic that will treat her is three miles away, a difficult distance considering that public transportation does not reach her at the bottom of her steep, rutted road.

"The buses don't come down here," she says of the narrow, descending alley that drops off on one side into a culvert.

Medical care in Cuba is free, but Rosa pays with her time, waiting outside all day until the public service doctor can see her. The pills to combat depression cost about 50 cents each, and a vial of 15 would use up her entire monthly income. She rarely buys them, preferring to spend the money on food.

She walks to the market and the clinic when she needs to, saving the one-peso fare for the food budget.

With other wooden and stucco hovels like hers lining the alley, no vehicle wider than the Russian-made Lada owned by her neighbor's nephew can make it within 200 yards of her porch, which consists of a concrete slab surrounded by a rusted chain-link fence and is padlocked against nocturnal dangers.

Across from Rosa's house of whitewashed wooden slats and closed louvers, three men are perched on concrete stumps that once supported fencing. Each sips from his own bottle of cheap rum, warily watching the unaccustomed visit by two strangers with the Lada driver.

Unlike younger Cubans or those with marketable skills like hairdressers and seamstresses, Rosa has no means of boosting her income.

Her oldest son, Carlos, 51 and disabled, often spreads a few humble wares for sale on a tea towel on Rosa's porch: lollipops, bouillon cubes, gum balls and, from his mother's ration basket, cigarettes, which are given only to those older than 60. He sometimes takes in 25 or 30 pesos, which he can convert to a single CUC to buy his own family supper.

"He can't help me much. We all have the same conditions," says Rosa, explaining with a mother's protectiveness why Carlos keeps her cigarette proceeds.

The government of Raul Castro, the 76-year-old younger brother of the ailing Fidel Castro, has acknowledged since Raul was named president in February that the two-currency economy has produced social strains and a class divide. He has pledged to restore equality by reunifying Cuba's monetary system.

Many foreign economists, however, deem that impossible unless everyone is forced back to the dysfunctional system in which prices are arbitrarily fixed by the state and goods disappear from stores when their production cost exceeds what they can sell for.

Havana shops today are full of luxuries Cubans hardly knew about when Soviet subsidies and communist-bloc trade reliably provided the basic necessities. Microwave ovens, cellphones, Chinese-made appliances and European foods now perch alluringly on store shelves, albeit at prices only the minority of Cubans flush with CUCs can afford.

Rosa laughs at the absurdity of owning anything more than the few comforts already in her home: the TV, the refrigerator and a telephone. She prefers the old days, without the tease of goods she cannot afford.

"It was better before," Rosa says.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Cuban Soccer Player-Defectors Adjust to a New Life

New York Times
May 9, 2008
Cuban Defectors Adjust to a New Life

LOS ANGELES — Under a sunny sky on a manicured soccer field, the drill was repeated over and over for 15 minutes. Maykel Galindo would settle a cross just outside the top of the penalty area, then try to figure out a way to put the ball past the man in goal.

Sometimes, Galindo demonstrated the skill that has made him one of the most dangerous strikers in Major League Soccer. Other times, it was the unfamiliar goalkeeper who would make an acrobatic save or force a miss that left his opponent cursing in Spanish.

Most of Galindo’s Chivas USA teammates and coaches, their practice over, watched from the sideline benches a routine that might have played out at any soccer club anywhere in the world: goal scorer versus goalkeeper.

But this scene in late April was not about mano a mano. It was Cubano a Cubano, a chance to look out and see not only the past but also a future.

“I felt like I was in Havana,” the goalkeeper, José Manuel Miranda, said through an interpreter.

Almost two months ago, Miranda was among seven players who walked away from Cuba’s under-23 men’s soccer team during an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, Fla.

He recently joined two of the others — midfielder Yordany Alvárez and defender Yenier Bermúdez — on a four-day bus ride from Miami for a tryout with the Los Angeles Galaxy. After the Galaxy declined to offer them contracts, they trained for two days with Chivas USA, the other M.L.S. team in Los Angeles. But Chivas USA also declined to keep them on.

Despite the setbacks, Miranda, Alvárez and Bermúdez hardly seem discouraged. They met with an immigration official at the end of April to begin seeking work permits, driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and green cards.

For now, they are relying on the largess of a network that runs through Cuban and soccer communities in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. They have received food, clothing, transportation, a cellphone and lodging. They also have the opportunity to stay in shape by playing several semiprofessional games each week. They earn $40 to $50 each per game, which Miranda said was about five times their monthly salary at the national soccer academy in Cuba.

“The Cuban community is very tight knit and very good at taking care of their own people,” said Alicia Molina, a lawyer for the nonprofit International Institute of Los Angeles who is representing the players in their applications for work permits. “This is not a typical experience of an immigrant, but it is typical of a Cuban.”

It is not, however, the typical path for a Cuban soccer player. Nearly 150 baseball players are known to have defected from Cuba, according to the Web site Among them are well-known major leaguers like Orlando Hernández, Liván Hernández and José Contreras.

But before Galindo’s defection during the Concacaf Gold Cup in 2005, when he sneaked out of the team hotel in Seattle, hopped on a city bus and asked the driver to call a Spanish-speaking high school teacher he had just met, soccer players only occasionally left for the United States. And none have caused more than a ripple in M.L.S.

After playing two seasons in Seattle for a second-tier pro league team, Galindo joined Chivas USA last year and became one of the league’s top scorers, with 12 goals, as his new team compiled the second-best regular-season record in M.L.S. This season, he is making $79,500.

In Cuba, the three young players became familiar with Galindo’s success because they watched pirated broadcasts of M.L.S. games. Miranda described their defections as “an important experience” because it planted the idea that they could make a living doing what they love.

“The idea of playing professional sports was completely foreign to us,” Miranda said. “It hadn’t occurred to us as an option.”

The role of flag bearer is one that Galindo plays reluctantly. He has been hesitant to comment about Cuban issues, including Fidel Castro’s passing of power to his brother, Raúl, earlier this year.

“When the seven guys left in Florida, the head of the Cuban soccer federation announced that Maykel is responsible for that,” said Galindo, who said he had not met the three players here until last week. “When I decided to come, I did it by myself. I didn’t recommend anybody else do it. But now that they’re here, I’m going to do what I can to help them.”

Galindo said there were no repercussions for his family when he left.

But after his defection, Bermúdez said his brother was dismissed from Cuba’s under-20 team. And when he called his mother from Florida, he said, the line was cut off. Bermúdez also left a girlfriend behind.

“I feel responsible for my brother,” he said through an interpreter. “It wasn’t his fault. It was my fault. He knew nothing.”

This and being branded a traitor by Cuban officials only increase his desire to succeed.

Bermúdez and Alvárez are 22, and Miranda is 21. Each showed his capabilities on the field in Florida, when Cuba tied the heavily favored United States, 1-1. Miranda made eight saves, Alvárez assisted on the goal and Bermúdez captained the team.

Chivas USA Coach Preki, who gave extensive tryouts to two other Cuban defectors last summer, said their will and skill would be tested.

“It’s about surviving, and Maykel is a survivor, but Maykel also has a quality,” he said, noting Galindo’s speed. “It goes hand in hand. You can bring a survivor here, but can he play the game?”

Paul Bravo, the Galaxy’s director of soccer, said the three men will probably be best served playing in the lower-level United Soccer Leagues.

“These guys are good athletes and have good minds for the game,” Bravo said. “I hope they make it. It’s not easy to walk away from the possibility of going to the Olympics, but they’re like a lot of people in Cuba — not just athletes. They’re looking for a better way of life.”

Alvárez and Miranda expressed disappointment with how the Galaxy tryout went, but they shrugged it off as a learning experience. In the last two months, they have had plenty. There was the cross-country trip, in which they did not shower, they survived on soda and junk food, and they endured standing at the side of a highway outside San Antonio one night when their bus broke down. There was practicing with David Beckham, whose poster hung in Miranda’s room in Cuba.

“They’re very happy now,” said Federico Velasquez, a Cuban immigrant and high school Spanish teacher from West New York, N.J., who has been their de facto agent, calling teams and finding places for them to stay. “They know everything is not easy, but they want to play professionally. They appreciate the opportunity they are getting.”

They hope, if work permits are secured, for another tryout. Until then, they will play as often as they can and take everything in, as they did recently on the freeway. They were quietly taking in sights that seemed foreign at every turn when they spotted a familiar one up in the hills.

“It was the sign that read Hollywood,” Bermúdez said. “We started taking photos. We’d only seen it in films.”

As he spoke, he became animated, his voice rising and eyes widening. It was as if, in his own mind, he was picturing something else he had seen before — a Hollywood ending.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Cuba announces shakeup of troubled farm sector

Miami Herald
Posted on Thu, May. 01, 2008
Cuba announces shakeup of troubled farm sector

Cuba announced a major shake-up of its troubled farm sector on May Day, shifting control of the island's farms from officials at the Agriculture Ministry to more than 150 local delegations.

The move is part of a potentially monumental effort to increase food production and reduce Cuba's dependence on imports. It came as hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched Thursday in a shorter May Day parade that reflected the businesslike style of new President Raul Castro.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma said 169 new delegations would take over control of the farm sector, and the government is considering slashing 104 unnecessary departments.

Granma said relying on local farm leaders to make more decisions will îîstimulate agricultural production, perfect its sale and increase the availability of food and, in this way, substitute imports.''

Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the nearly 3 million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation, used his brief International Workers Day speech to urge government employees to work harder and increase efficiency.

"It is fundamental to concentrate efforts on increasing production and productivity, above all of food,'' he said.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February, did not speak during the festivities, but smiled and waved from a podium as marchers danced, sang and screamed "Long Live Fidel! Long Live Raul!'' while streaming past him in Havana's Revolution Plaza.

The whole event was over in under two hours … less time than Fidel used just for his speech at the last May Day event he attended in 2006.

For decades, May Day featured lengthy speeches, as well as music and even skits. But Raul, who has spent most of his life running Cuba's military, has a reputation for pragmatism and calculated efficiency.

Still, 57-year-old Rolando Gonzalez, who marched with government tourism workers, said the two brothers aren't as different as many think.

"Raul's style is the same as Fidel's. With him we are on the same road as always,'' he said. "But Raul does talk more about hard work, producing more and that's important.''

The 81-year-old Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. But he was still the star of Thursday's parade, which began with a row of marchers carrying a huge sign reading îîRevolution is Fidel.'' Several minutes went by before a picture of Raul came into view.

The new government has already erased bans on ordinary Cubans obtaining cell phones and renting luxury hotel rooms, as well as made it easier for state workers to own homes they once rented as part of their jobs. It also is letting more private farmers and cooperatives take a crack at putting fallow government land to better use.

The government hopes granting small farmers and local leaders more autonomy could revitalize the sector. Officials estimate that 51 percent of arable land in Cuba was underused or fallow because of government mismanagement.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Cuba puts first computers on sale to public

Cuba puts first computers on sale to public
Another despised restriction on daily life falls with Raul Castro in charge
By Will Weissert
The Associated Press
updated 3:46 p.m. PT, Fri., May. 2, 2008

HAVANA - Cubans are getting wired.

The island's communist government put desktop computers on sale to the public for the first time Friday, ending a ban on PC sales as another despised restriction on daily life fell away under new President Raul Castro.

A tower-style QTECH PC and monitor costs nearly $780. While few Cubans can afford that, dozens still gawked outside a tiny Havana electronics store, crowding every inch of its large glass windows and leaving finger and nose prints behind.

Inside, four clerks tore open boxes, hastily assembling display computers. By the time a sign went up listing the PCs specifications, more than a dozen shoppers were lined up to get in.

"Look at that!" murmured Armando Batista as he pressed against the window. Although he can't afford to buy one, he said, "these are good for a start."

The gray and black QTECHs, complete with DVD players, bulky CRT monitors and standard-issue black mice and keyboards, are the only model available.

The Cuban PCs have Intel Celeron processors with 80 gigabytes of memory and 512 RAM and are equipped with Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. Both could be violations of a U.S. trade embargo, but not something Washington can do anything about in the absence of diplomatic relations with Havana.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Clerks said the PCs were assembled by Cuban companies using parts imported from China. For about $80 less, buyers in the U.S. can get a desktop with more than twice the memory, a 80 GB SATA hard drive and 22-inch LCD flat screen monitor.

The crowded store in central Havana's Carlos III shopping center is the only outlet in the country now selling the PCs. Clerks at a few other government-run stores — where Cubans must buy everything — said they expect to receive deliveries sometime after next week.

Brian Brito, 14, saved his allowance for two years to buy himself a PC for his upcoming 15th birthday.

"It's good for playing games," he said, while lugging his new computer from the mall.

But his mother had other ideas. "He'll use it for school, for learning," she said. "And besides, it's a form of healthy entertainment."

Except for some trusted officials and state journalists, most Cubans are banned from accessing the Internet at home. So many of these new computers may never be connected to the Web.

Some people buy limited e-mail access on the black market, usually sharing an account with the authorized holder, who usually works for the state. Even if they could access the Web, Cubans can't shop on line because they don't have credit cards.

Raul Castro promised to eliminate many of these prohibitions when he assumed the presidency on Feb. 24, after his ailing 81-year-old brother Fidel resigned. Besides selling consumer goods, he has ended bans that kept most Cubans from having cell phones, staying in luxury hotels or renting cars.

An internal government memo had indicated that PCs, DVD players, motorbikes and plug-in pressure cookers would be sold for the first time in April. Everything but the computers made it to the shelves last month.

Computers have been sold on Cuba's black market for years — at prices comparable to the $780 now seen in the store. But now that computers are available legally, some consumers expect black market prices to fall.

The government controls more than 90 percent of Cuba's economy, paying an average state salary of $19.50 per month. But most Cubans have access to extra income through jobs with foreign firms, tips from working in tourism or money sent by relatives living abroad.

Thousands have snapped up phones and coveted kitchen appliances in recent weeks.

"Hotels, cell phones, DVD, Cuba is changing a lot," said Oscar Perez, who came to help his 14-year-old cousin carry his new computer to the car. "That's positive. But we want more."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Stores Hints at Change Under New Castro

New York Times
May 2, 2008
Stores Hints at Change Under New Castro

HAVANA — Can a rice maker possibly be revolutionary?

There they were, piled up one atop another, Chinese-made rice makers selling for $70 each. Beside them, sleek DVD players. Across the well-stocked electronics store were computers and televisions and other household appliances that President Raúl Castro recently decreed ought to be made available to average Cubans, or at least those who could afford them.

Since finally succeeding his ailing 81-year-old brother, Fidel, in February, Mr. Castro, 76, who appeared before hundreds of thousands of Cubans at a May Day rally on Thursday here in the capital, has been busy with a flurry of changes. In the last eight weeks he has also opened access to cellphones, lifted the ban on Cubans using tourist hotels and granted farmers the right to manage unused land for profit.

More is on the horizon, government officials say, like easing restrictions on traveling abroad and the possibility of allowing Cubans to buy and sell their own cars, and perhaps even their homes. Each of these changes may be microscopic in contrast to the outsize problems facing Cuba. But taken together, they are shaking up this stoic, time-warped place.

Just how far Mr. Castro will be willing to tinker with the country his brother left him and what, if anything, he is using as his playbook nobody knows for sure. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reinvigorate the ailing Soviet system led to its collapse and its abandonment of Cuba. More inspiring is the mix of consumerism and pragmatic authoritarian politics that energized growth and reinforced Communist Party rule in China and Vietnam.

China is now Cuba’s second largest trading partner, and Vietnam is one of the first countries that Mr. Castro has said he will visit. Leaders from both countries visited over the last year and had sessions with both Castro brothers. Cuba analysts say that Raúl Castro, as the longtime defense minister, has maintained close ties to both countries’ militaries and has close aides who know the countries well.

“This is the Asia model,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University. “Still, the signals he has sent are so faint and so tentative that it’s not at all clear where he wants to take Cuba or where Cuba will go.”

Marifeli Pérez-Stable, vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue, said: “He’s never going to say. I’m not sure he even knows it. But he is following China, and even more so Vietnam,” meaning that Mr. Castro was hewing to a more go-slow approach.

As in those countries, economic freedom is one thing, and political liberty something else. On the latter, Cuba’s government has given every sign that it is intent on holding the line.

But Mr. Castro’s early tinkering has already laid bare an uncomfortable, and potentially destabilizing, reality in a country that for 50 years has been run as one of the world’s most rigid socialist systems: that some Cubans are far better off than others, whether because of remittances from relatives abroad, ties to the ruling class or unauthorized money-making ventures on the side.

For now, his government seems willing to accept those disparities, tolerating the notion of class differences while continuing to cling to a Cuban vision of socialism that includes food subsidies, free education and health care for all, Mr. Castro’s backers in the government say.

Whether that approach will satisfy Cubans, who are quickly becoming more aware of their relative consumer deprivation, is another question. A rice maker alone costs more than three times the average monthly state salary here. Conversations on the street, away from the lines of people buying what is newly available to them, reveal discontent.

Javier, a 25-year-old computer programmer, has made up his mind to leave Cuba for California as soon as he can. “Come on, these changes are only in favor of a very tiny part of the population,” he said, sitting along a coastal wall and staring into the ocean. “We, who get up early in the morning to get the bus, we, who have sacrificed ourselves, we can’t afford all this,” he added. “I’d love to go to a fancy hotel with my girlfriend for a night or two. But, hey, I simply can’t. I couldn’t afford it, even in my dreams.”

Even for those who can, it is a journey into another world that was all but off limits just weeks ago. The other day, a young woman struggled for 20 minutes to get into a Havana hotel room, jamming her key card in the slot haphazardly and shoving the door with all her might. She could be excused, though, since it was her first time using such a contraption. In her case, her foreign boyfriend paid the $175-a-night bill.

“Different classes have always existed but they are more visible now,” explained María Ileana Faguaga, a Havana-based anthropologist who specializes in Cuba’s struggling black population. “Now you just look at who has a cellphone.”

A taxi driver barreling along the seaside Malecón, who like most Cuban workers is paid by the state, pulled out a Nokia from his pocket this week. “This one has a camera and Bluetooth,” he said, boasting that he was one of the first in line when Mr. Castro recently ended the restrictions.

“What do you think of the Sony Ericsson?” the driver asked, explaining that he was thinking of an upgrade at some point. He was full of questions. Is it true Motorola is struggling? Would the iPhone work in Cuba?

Mr. Castro’s model, what the state-run newspaper has called “more perfect socialism,” appears to be a Cuba with a greater correlation between the work one puts in and the resulting reward.

One of Mr. Castro’s most far-reaching moves may be his announcement giving farmers the right to manage unused land for profit. Cuba spent $1.4 billion importing food last year and, as a result of rising food prices, will spend $1.9 billion this year to get 20 percent less food, which officials call an untenable situation.

Scrapping the longstanding practice of dictating planting decisions from Havana, the government will allow more local control, officials say, and hopefully home-grown food.

But what about nonfarmers? Would Mr. Castro be willing to expand on his older brother’s experiment allowing some private restaurants and rooming houses to operate? What about permitting private auto mechanics, hairdressers and tutors, all of whom exist in Cuba but on the sly?

Washington has dismissed the measures as falling far short of the kind of structural changes needed in Cuba. “I see it as somewhat sad that after 49 years of shortages and suffering and repression people are now allowed to buy a rice cooker,” said Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, whose family fled Havana in 1960 when he was 6. “Our read is that these are tactical moves designed to buy some time.”

When it comes to truly loosening the political elite’s grip on power, in fact, Mr. Castro has not ceded much ground. He has encouraged Cubans to come forward with their critiques of the way things are functioning, although he insists that the proper way to do so is through Communist Party channels.

When a group of women whose relatives had been jailed held a demonstration outside Mr. Castro’s office recently, a team of stern-faced female officers showed up to haul the so-called ladies in white away.

“When difficulties are greater, more order and discipline will be required,” Mr. Castro told party leaders recently, announcing that he would convene the first party congress in a dozen years in the last half of 2009. “For that, it is vital to strengthen institutions.”

Mr. Castro commuted the death sentences for an undetermined number of prisoners this week, although the move was dismissed as a half measure by activists who want an end to persecutions of people who speak out against the government.

“Things are changing but everything is continuing the same,” said Elizardo Sánchez, an activist whose Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission sees little substantive difference between the hard-line governments of the two Castro brothers.

Even if Mr. Castro aims to imitate Chinese-style reforms, there is no guarantee he will succeed. In the early days of China’s move away from strict socialist central planning, Deng Xiaoping dismantled Mao’s cult of personality, allowing a measure of political relaxation that signaled a shift in official attitudes.

“Is it possible for Raúl Castro to move beyond the cult of personality of his brother Fidel, who is in the same league with Mao?” asked Michael Green, a former Bush administration Asia specialist who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cuba could turn out to be more like North Korea, Mr. Green said, which undertook market-oriented reforms in 2002 that brought little change in the grim conditions there.

There is still plenty of anxiety in Cuba as well. One woman who gave her name only as Iris bought a Nokia phone with the help of her Italian boyfriend but now has no money to buy cards for airtime. When she does, she feels guilty that the money could go to feeding her son. What she wants even more than any consumer item is a well-paying job that would allow her to afford them, she said.