Cuba perks show a post-Fidel touch
Posted on Thu, Sep. 13, 2007
By ANITA SNOW
With Raul Castro in charge, Cuba has raised payments to milk and meat
producers, is paying off its debts to farmers and has stopped blocking
the import of parts needed to keep vintage cars rumbling along.
Travelers can even bring in DVD players and game consoles, highly
coveted by Cubans starved for high-tech entertainment.
Raul's ailing brother Fidel is still showing leadership behind the
scenes, and as provisional president, he has only taken small steps. But
he's already giving clues to how he might govern once he takes full
control – paying special attention to quality-of-life problems, publicly
scolding state managers and bluntly acknowledging that salaries don't
cover basic needs.
The new Chinese buses on intercity routes are evidence of the Raul
effect. They were in the planning before Fidel got sick, but they have
become much more visible since Raul gave a speech late last year saying
he was sick of hearing bureaucrats' excuses and wanted results.
To boost food production, lawmakers agreed in June to pay producers 2
1/2 times more for milk and meat included in the island's heavily
subsidized ration program and in meals provided at similarly low-cost
workplace cafeterias, schools, hospitals and community centers. The
prices consumers pay will remain the same.
At the same gathering National Assembly members were told that the state
had just paid off debts worth $23 million to the small farmers and
cooperatives that grow two-thirds of the island's fruits and vegetables,
and renegotiated $35 million in other debts.
The change is evident in style too. Where a Fidel speech could devote
hours to communist, his brother's oratory is much more short and direct,
and Cubans love his public attacks on government failures.
But 76-year-old Raul is only a caretaker president, and officials insist
that 81-year-old Fidel will be back. And as long as Fidel is alive, no
one thinks Raul will dare to make big moves that could annoy the older
brother he has loved and admired since they were boys.
Thomas Fingar, the U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence, told
the U.S. Congress in June that while the Cuban public has high
expectations of improvement, "Significant, positive political change is
As caretaker president, Raul has "very limited running room," said Cuba
analyst Phil Peters, of the pro-democracy Lexington Institute think tank
outside Washington. "He seems to be looking for small practical things
that can make Cubans' lives easier."
Cuban exiles in Miami are consumed with rumors that Fidel is dying or
dead. But Cubans on the island rarely mention him nowadays – they're
already more focused on what Raul, Fidel's constitutionally designated
successor, will do.
They were pleased to hear him confirm on television that state salaries
fail to cover basic necessities, and some even cheered when Raul
delivered a slap at inefficient state managers by commenting
sardonically about government farms infested with a fast-growing, thorny
bush called marabu.
They nodded knowingly as Raul publicly questioned why all Cubans aren't
guaranteed milk in their monthly food rations, not just children under
7. They also noticed that the milk comment was dropped from the official
transcript of the televised speech.
On a personal level, Cubans were moved to see Raul appearing to choke
back a sob after kissing an urn containing his wife's ashes at her
state-televised funeral in June. The cameras also showed a vault next to
Espin's that already bears Raul's name – an unusual acknowledgment of a
Cuban leader's mortality in a country where talk of Fidel's death has
always been taboo.
Cubans have never had such a personal glimpse of Fidel, who does not
appear in public with his family, and they don't know where or how his
funeral will take place.
Authorities insist the brothers are united, and bristle at suggestions
Raul is more open to change than his brother. They note that Fidel also
hinted at reforms in November 2005, when he acknowledged that if
government corruption and inefficiency are not controlled, "this
revolution can destroy itself."
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote in an essay e-mailed to
international media that he suspects government hard-liners are worrying
that possible changes could undermine their legitimacy. He also noted
that just five days after Raul said he would be open to discussing
improved relations with a new U.S. president, Fidel wrote that the
United States – "the empire" – would never negotiate with Cuba.
In the past, Raul expressed interest in China's model of a market
economy in a one-party state. But Vice President Carlos Lage says Cuba
won't copy that model.
"The countries now working to build socialism in different parts of the
world," Lage said, "are doing so in situations very different
politically and economically from ours."