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Signs of change in Cuba

With Raul Castro in charge, talk of economic reform sweeps the island as state farming fails.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published August 6, 2007


HAVANA - Halfway through a recent speech marking Cuba's Revolution Day, acting President Raul Castro broke from his prepared text to note how green the countryside looked after recent rains ended a long drought.

Then with a heavy note of sarcasm he added, "What most struck me was how pretty the marabu looks," referring to the thorny shrub that has spread in recent years like a plague across idle farmland.

His message was clear: Cuba's inefficient socialist model of state farming is failing to produce the crops the country needs to feed its population of 11-million.

Exactly how he plans to fix things is less certain. But, a year after an ailing Fidel Castro passed the torch, Raul Castro is demonstrating his own style of government.

Unlike his unyielding and highly ideological brother, Raul Castro is confirming a reputation for pragmatism, even if that means loosening the economic controls of the country's socialist system.

For the moment the signs of change are still small. Even so, all over the country talk of reform is in the air.

"Raul won't change the line, but he's not blind," said Valentin Bernal, a 53-year-old construction worker sipping a plastic cup of rum and Coke near Havana's seafront. "The world is changing and we have to think to the future."

No major reforms have been announced, but Cuba's communist government is openly discussing the need for wide-ranging economic measures that some analysts say could mark a major break from decades of rigid communist doctrine.

Earlier this year Raul Castro convened the nation's top economists to offer proposals. They were urged to be as "audacious" as they wanted, according to participants.

"The economists are questioning almost everything in the current economic system," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst now living in Miami. "They are saying that the concept of socialist property needs to be redefined."

While U.S. officials are watching Raul Castro's economic moves closely, they insist only major political reform, and the dismantling of the country's one-party rule, will end Washington's economic embargo of the island.

Among the reforms being discussed are handing out idle state land to independent farmers, giving greater autonomy to managers of state-run businesses, and allowing greater freedom for Cubans to open their own small businesses.

 

Consumer controls

In an effort to revive the country's sagging tourist industry, the government is also seeking new foreign investment, including proposals for golf resorts and boating marinas.

Other ideas include allowing Cubans to stay at tourist-only hotels and making cell phones available to Cubans in the local peso currency. At present they can only purchase cell phones in Cuba's tourist currency, known as CUC, to which most Cubans have little or no access.

"We are 11-million people living on ration books," said Victor Garcia, a 68-year-old security guard outside a bleak-looking state store in Central Havana. "For years we've watched tourists coming here with their cameras and nice clothes, enjoying the best food and hotels. We'd like to have some of that."

So far this year the government has only tweaked the state-run system. Customs controls for DVDs, electronic goods and car parts were recently amended to allow Cubans to bring up to $1,000 of previously banned goods into the country.

While a seemingly trivial move, it was taken as a sign that Raul Castro is more open to satisfying consumer interests than his austere brother. He has a record of backing limited market reforms in the past, including a successful program in the 1980s that promoted privately run farmer cooperatives. Under his leadership at the Defense Ministry, he also oversaw an innovative program in the 1990s to raise efficiency at businesses run by the military.

 

Collapse of harvest

Despite a modest economic recovery in recent years, thanks in large part to major trade deals with Cuba's oil-rich ally, Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, key sectors of the Cuban economy, including public transport and the sugar industry, are in a "semicollapsed" state, according to a detailed report by Interpress, a left-leaning news agency. This year's sugar harvest was the worst in 100 years.

In his speech Raul Castro highlighted the need to boost salaries and raise domestic food production to substitute for massive increases in the world price for basic food products Cuba imports. Besides the rising price of oil, he cited huge leaps in the cost of imported powdered milk and rice. "We face the imperative of making our land produce more," he said.

How far Cuba is prepared to go in achieving those goals remains the subject of enormous speculation. That would require abandoning, or at least rethinking, some of the rigid socialist egalitarian policies long advocated by Fidel Castro.

 

New direction?

Some Cuban economists argue that Cuba has no option but to accept limited market reforms. About 60 percent of farms are run by the state, but 25 percent of that land is uncultivated and overrun by the thorny marabu. And though cooperative and small private farms account for only 30 percent of the agricultural land, they produce 60 percent of the food grown.

Most analysts question whether Raul Castro is willing to push private farming while his brother is still alive. So, ears pricked up during his speech when he dropped the biggest hint so far of which direction he is leaning. "To reach these goals, the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced," he said.

Curiously, Fidel Castro has remained largely silent while the debate has gone on. Still out of the public eye while he convalesces from undisclosed intestinal surgery, Castro has taken to writing frequent newspaper columns, titled "Reflections of the Commander in Chief," about what he considers to be the issues of the day. Last week, it was the desertion of two top Cuban boxers.

The "Commentator-in-Chief," as some are now calling him, occasionally delivers reminders of his ideological rigidity. On Saturday he attacked capitalism, writing that "commercial advertising and consumerism are incompatible with the survival of the species."

Most Cubans seem to recognize that he may never return to public life. At the same time, they have little doubt that he still wields enormous influence behind the scenes.

Enjoying an afternoon stroll with his wife and daughter along the Havana seafront, Jorge Larrazabac expressed a common sentiment heard all over the island. "Raul is driving, but it's Fidel's car," he said.

 

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com