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Cubans await the change Castro will bring

There have been no overt changes in economy
March 23, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Cubans expecting their new president to transform their straitened lives are tempering their hopes as they gradually accept him at his word: Small improvements will come with time, but nothing will happen overnight. Hopes for at least modest economic reforms sprang up 20 months ago when Raul Castro took over provisionally from his ailing older brother, Fidel. When he became president last month, the hopes blossomed.

But beginning with his Feb. 24 inauguration speech, Castro has tried to lower expectations. While promising generally to eliminate an "excess of prohibitions and regulations," he said any change would be slow and require hard work by all Cubans.

Since then, there have been no overt changes in the state-controlled economy, and many Cubans are coming around to the idea that - once again - they will need to be patient.

"Raul says we have to work hard, and we have to work well," said Orestes, a retired military man. He smiled, but politely refused to answer, when asked for his last name; ordinarily chatty Cubans often clam up around foreign reporters, worried they could get into trouble.

Privately, many Cubans express hopes that the near-worthless pesos they get on their government paychecks will increase in value, that their pensions and salaries will increase, that they will be allowed to travel abroad without government permission.

Although few could afford the luxury, many also talk about getting unlimited Internet access, and regaining access to hotels now restricted to foreigners.

Life over the past year has been a string of disappointments.

International news reports said microwave ovens and DVD players would soon be in stores, but none have materialized. Rumors that ordinary Cubans would be allowed to buy cell phone service have proven unfounded. There was speculation that people would be allowed to buy homes and cars. They still can't.

One concrete improvement is public transport. Thousands of new Chinese-made buses ordered on Fidel Castro's watch are finally plying new routes, eliminating commuter bottlenecks.

"Transportation is a marvel!" exclaimed Niola Prieto, a flower vendor at the farmers' market, pointing to a huge red bus rumbling by with more than 100 passengers. "Hopefully Raul can do the same with the food situation."

The new president has made food a priority, taking steps to increase farm production. He has also acknowledged the need to improve salaries and resolve a dual-currency system that severely limits Cubans' buying power.

The question is, how long will they wait? Older Cubans are used to waiting hours for a bus, months for their children's school uniforms, or years for telephone installation in their home. Younger Cubans, eager for computers and iPods, may be less patient.

"Raul and his government, like the Comandante before them, act as if time were on their side," Marifeli Perez-Stable, vice president at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, told a U.S. House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee on March 5. "Will the one-step-at-a-time pace be enough to satisfy the citizenry?"

Perez-Stable said Cuban leaders fear what happened to Soviet leaders who lost control of quickening change.

But so far, Havana shows no signs of widespread restlessness.

The last spell of profound, generalized discontent in the capital was felt during hours-long power cuts in the heat of summer, 2005. A scattering of public protests and anti-Fidel graffiti had authorities worried, but a renovation of the electrical grid ended the blackouts.

Hal Klepak, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada who studies Raul Castro, said the government should be able to maintain political control by making minor economic improvements at a measured pace.

"The challenge for the younger generations will be to have patience, while keeping up their demands," Klepak said in Havana. "For authorities, it will be to give the green light and show the people there is hope - but they are not going to lose control."

 

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