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.

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