Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cubans are happily adjusting to change under Raúl Castro

Dallas Morning News
Cubans are happily adjusting to change under Raúl Castro

12:07 AM CDT on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA – Gerardo Guardiola looks beyond the material items newly available to Cubans – cellphones, DVD players, meals at restaurants once reserved for tourists – and keys in on a more fundamental change that has transformed his life.

"I now think for myself," said the 44-year-old tobacco factory worker and father of 10. "That's truly revolutionary, knowing that you're responsible for your own destiny."

Cubans are taking note of the flurry of changes under President Raúl Castro, 76, who succeeded his ailing 81-year-old brother, Fidel, in February.

As Cuba prepares to observe the 55th anniversary of the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada barracks – which lit the fuse of the Cuban revolution – no one seems sure where Raúl Castro's changes are taking the country. But in interviews, a range of Cubans spoke with pride about the expanding economic opportunities, improved workplace incentives, and a growing sense of personal freedom and responsibility.

Is it creeping capitalism?

"I don't know what capitalism is," said María Inez, 42, who operates a torta and hot dog stand on bustling Obispo Street in Old Havana – a business she once operated clandestinely from her home. "This makes more sense. It's a more rational way to make a living."

Wayne Smith, head of the U.S. diplomatic mission here during the Carter administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said the changes are significant.

"Cuba is still finding its way," he said during an interview in Havana. "Changes may be slow and gradual, but something fundamental is changing across the island."

Cuban government officials have hinted that more changes may be coming, including easing restrictions on traveling abroad, allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars, and legalizing unauthorized taxis.

Recent measures allow merit-based incentives for workers, once unheard of in a country where the concept of equality trumped individual effort. For farmers, there is more land to cultivate and reduced bureaucracy.

On Friday, Raúl Castro advised Cubans to prepare for a "realistic" brand of communism that does away with excessive state subsidies, The Associated Press reported.

"Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income," he said in a speech on national television.

Watching the changes closely are U.S. businesses, including members of a Texas agricultural trade delegation who visited Cuba in late May.

"For nearly five decades, the United States and Cuba have lived as strangers, but now we must seize the opportunity to heal the divide," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples wrote in a commentary. "I knew Texas agriculture had something to offer which could dramatically improve life for the Cuban people and open doors for Texas agricultural producers. We have resources; they have a real need."

'Tweaking' socialism

Even as Fidel Castro's shadow looms large via his personal "Reflections" column in the government-run newspaper Granma, there are signs that Cubans are adapting to the post-Fidel era.

"Cuba has moved on," a U.S. diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Cubans are thinking for themselves, and that's a very important change. ... There's also a sense of, 'Can't we bury this legend and move on?' "

A Cuban government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that the changes represent a shift away from socialism.

"We're simply perfecting what we already have, tweaking our socialist system," the official said. "Fidel will be with us forever. His legacy will transcend time. Cubans will never leave Fidel behind."

The official said "ongoing debate among Cubans" is in response to Raúl Castro's urging that they speak up to help fix the nation's problems. And the government has gotten an earful.

Cubans, via government media, now question everything from the quality of health care and education to the official unemployment rate. On a visit to the University of Havana, the president of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, was heckled, something unheard of in the past.

"A debate has been unleashed, and people are speaking quite freely," said Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research organization in Arlington, Va. "And though it's not a guarantee that the government will act, it's still significant change."

Many Cubans said the changes are important even if the newly available products and opportunities remain beyond their reach. With the average monthly wage $20, many Cubans can't afford a cellphone or $120 for a night at the Hotel Nacional, Havana's crown jewel.

"What's important," explained Joselito Moreno, an airport taxi driver, "is that we can finally choose."

Challenging choices

Those choices can be vexing. A few months ago, Mr. Moreno's daughter turned 15 and wanted to spend a night at the Hotel Nacional with two friends. The parents agreed but quickly calculated that $120 would keep food on the table for months. So they took their daughter, in her white dress, and toured the hotel gardens.

"We went home and ate pork, ice cream and cake," Mr. Moreno said. "With freedom come new responsibilities."

On a moonlit Havana night, Remi, a taxi driver who didn't want his full name used, showed off his city's historic buildings. He bubbled with enthusiasm about the changes under way.

"We always saw Fidel as the savior, the one who would somehow find a way to defend us," he said. "Now we're forced to think of life without Fidel and how to fend for ourselves."

As Remi navigated his Russian-made car along the Malecón, Havana's seafront drive, he pointed to a gathering of gay men, a sign of new tolerance. But he noted that some things remain stuck in time – such as the feud between his country and the U.S.

At the building housing the U.S. Interests Section, he pointed out the huge electronic billboard upon which the news of the day is scrolled repeatedly – a provocative jab at the Cuban government's control of information. The Cuban government responded by erecting a battery of flagpoles to shield the billboard and make a statement of its own, flying dozens of black flags representing Cubans supposedly killed by U.S.-backed anti-Castro terrorists.

The two governments are like "two bullies still fighting for their marbles," Remi said, "while the population awaits more change."

Since Raúl Castro became president in February, new policies allow:

•Individual ownership of computers and cellphones.

•Cuban access to tourist hotels.

•Performance-based pay incentives.

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