Raul Castro lifts hopes of economic relief in Cuba

One year after taking over from his ailing brother as Cuba's leader, Raul Castro is raising hopes of reforms to relieve economic inefficiencies and food shortages.

He became acting president last July 31 after his elder brother Fidel Castro had emergency stomach surgery, giving up power for the first time since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

For the first few months, Raul Castro's main concern was to preserve political stability, but he has recently turned to bread-and-butter issues.

In a frank account of communist Cuba's most pressing problems, Raul Castro acknowledged last week in his first Revolution Day speech that state salaries were clearly inadequate and agriculture absurdly inefficient.

He said more foreign investment was welcome in Cuba, and that structural changes were needed to produce more food and cut the country's reliance on expensive imports.

"People feel encouraged. The speech shows that Raul is in charge now. Changes are coming," said a Havana maid who asked not to be named.

Her husband was less optimistic. "We've heard the same story for years. I can only afford vegetables on my pay, never meat," he said before his wife shut him up, saying he could be arrested.

An economist working for the government said major reforms in agriculture are being drawn up and changes in property laws are also under study.

With wages averaging just $14 a month, Raul Castro's focus on tough economic issues is a refreshing change for many Cubans after years of long-winded speeches by Fidel Castro.

"I hope Raul can fix this, because Cuba is a good country," said Armando Laferte, 42, leaning against a beat up 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline, rap music blaring from its two doors.

"We can't afford the things we most need, from toothpaste to tomato paste," he complained. "It's not only the economy that has to open up. Everything must."

REALISM

Fidel Castro, who turns 81 next month, has not appeared in public since he stepped aside. He has written a series of editorial columns in recent months but has shown no sign of returning to power and Raul Castro's authority appears to be growing by the day.

Exactly one year after he took over, the Communist Party newspaper Granma had a photograph of Raul Castro on its front page on Tuesday while a new editorial by Fidel Castro on the Panamerican Games in Brazil was tucked deep inside on the sports pages.

Even dissidents welcomed Raul Castro's speech last week as a sign of realism brought to government by the 76-year-old defense minister.

"Raul's speech creates expectations and hope, but we should be cautious. There are hard-liners who are putting obstacles in the way of reform," said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, adding that the country is bankrupt.

In his apparent semi-retirement, Fidel Castro remains the formal head of state and some Cubans expect him to try to slow reforms that reduce the state's control over 90 percent of the economy.

While Raul Castro backed limited private initiative in the 1990s and is viewed as a pragmatic reformer, there is nothing to suggest he intends to follow China's path of opening up to a market economy under continued Communist Party rule.

Fidel Castro often railed against inefficiencies but his reform attempts were modest and he reined some in when he felt they might move Cuba too far away from the socialist path.

Some Cubans are optimistic they will soon be able to buy cellular phones, and freely buy and sell their cars and even their homes one day. Others say any change will come slowly.

"Raul has good intentions, but these problems have existed for so long," said one housewife on the dilapidated doorstep of her central Havana home.

"It has always been politics first, second and third, and only then the economy. I'd have to see change to believe it."

(Published by New York Times, July 31, 2007)

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