Thursday, February 21, 2008
Castro's exit builds Cuban expectations
Many are hoping for free-market opportunities
By The Associated Press
line.com/flash/spotlight.gif" WIDTH="300" HEIGHT="250" BORDER="0"></A>
HAVANA (AP) — Fidel Castro spent nearly five decades railing against
even the tiniest of capitalist reforms in the Western Hemisphere's only
Some Cubans are hoping his brother, Raul, would embrace free markets and
more if he becomes president Sunday — perhaps moving Cuba to something
more like Vietnam or China, which also have communist leaders, but let
markets largely rule their economies.
"China is a communist country but the people are free to earn a lot and
buy cars, cell phones," said Alberto, who rolls cigars in a government
factory for $15 a month. "Why can't Cuban communism be like that?"
The answer could start to emerge Sunday when Cuba's parliament meets to
choose new leaders. While Raul Castro is likely to be named president,
the choices for 30 other lawmakers on the Council of State, including
his No. 2, could indicate how far the island's supreme governing body is
willing to go toward opening the economy.
Fidel, 81 and ailing, took himself out of the running Tuesday for the
top spot but may continue to wield enough power
Click to learn more…
as Communist Party chief to stifle any major changes.
Raul, 76, already has tantalized many reform-seekers while serving as
acting president for 19 months. He has urged unspecified "structural
changes" in Cuba's communist system, acknowledged that state salaries
don't meet basic needs, and called on Cubans to complain openly when
government control of the economy flounders — although, so far, there
have been few changes beyond better pay for farmers and increased food
And as defense minister, Raul put Cuba's military at the forefront of
the economy, as he and other top military officers assumed control of
such key sectors as electronics imports, cigar exports and tourism.
"There could be a new perspective with Raul, new freedoms that are
exciting to some," said Sergio, a 47-year-old government factory worker.
Like others interviewed, he was afraid that having his full name appear
in the foreign press could lead to harassment by supervisors at work, or
even political repercussions.
The Cuban government provides free housing, education and health care,
and ration cards help cover the costs of basic food. Few Cubans want to
part with those benefits and fully embrace U.S.-style capitalism,
although many are hoping the new government could accept tweaks to the
system and enough small economic opportunities to allow for improvements.
"No one dies of hunger in Cuba, but the system of everyone equal,
prisoners the same as students, the same as doctors — it doesn't work,"
said Evelyn, a 24-year-old student. "People who work hard deserve to be
This month, student leaders grilled parliament president Ricardo Alarcon
about low state salaries, restrictions on Internet access and rules that
prevent most Cubans from traveling abroad or staying in hotels designed
for tourists — many of the most-infuriating features of daily Cuban life.
There was no mention of the closed event in official Cuban media, but
pirated video of it has circulated widely and one student who asked
tough questions later appeared on state television, in an apparent
government effort to prove that his criticisms did not land him in prison.
Even state-run newspapers have produced unusually critical articles
lately, accusing officials of drastically underestimating unemployment
rates and failing to provide sufficient supply to meet demand,
especially for food.
Nearly 80 percent of Cubans work for the government and the average
monthly state salary is about $19.50. Government economists estimate at
least 60 percent of Cubans have access to dollars, euros and other
foreign currency because of jobs in tourism, with foreign companies, or
through funds sent by relatives in the United States.
Still, the government's campaign for egalitarianism limits access to
luxuries such as cell phones and private vehicles. While the government
provides credits for major appliances such as refrigerators, washing
machines and televisions, buying or selling homes to anyone but the
government is forbidden.
Clothing, electronics and grocery stores that cater to foreigners are
often well-stocked with products unavailable anywhere else, from toilet
paper and disposable diapers to items not fully covered by the
subsidized food rations, such as beef, milk and cooking oil.
Even basics such as underwear, shoes and personal care items like
shampoo and shaving supplies can only be found in stores whose prices
are too high for most Cubans.
A pair of Nike Air Force I sneakers costs the equivalent of $140, while
a bottle of soft contact lens solution from Bausch & Lomb sells for the
equivalent of $16.75.
Many Cubans were upset by a recent law requiring people who work for
foreign companies to pay taxes on foreign currency income they get in
addition to their tiny salaries paid in Cuban pesos. Yet the measure
could one day give rise to a true middle class, since it legalizes what
was long a potentially illegal practice of earning foreign currency —
and acknowledges that Cubans working with international companies make
far more money than compatriots in government jobs.
For the first time under communist rule, Cuba may be ready to allow a
large percentage of its population accumulate wealth — as long as they
Vladimir, a 27-year-old who studied economics at the University of
Havana, said he supports Raul Castro's small steps so far, but recently
quit his job at a state agricultural cooperative and sees working with a
foreign company as his only hope.
"I think, 'What can I have in 10 years?' and it's very sad," Vladimir
said. "I can work very hard, but with a state salary, I can't buy a
house, an apartment. I can't plan a life other than living with my parents."