When General Raúl Castro assumed power provisionally, due to the illness of its brother at the end of July 2006, some analysts thought he would manage to usher in an epoch of economic changes to fix Cuba’s troubled society. This perception was largely based on the personal characteristics of the younger Castro, as well as the calamitous social situation in urgent need of transformation that he was inheriting from his brother.
The General has not been a supporter of democratic principles. During his life he has not distinguished himself as an ideologue or as someone with disproportionate ambitions of international pre-eminence, but as a pragmatic person, prone towards team work and with a talent for organization. These are the characteristics he demonstrated as the leader of the armed forces, one of the country’s relatively solid institutions. His political stature, certainly lacks the charisma of Fidel Castro, should be inclined towards substantially improving the population’s deteriorating standard of living, a goal only attainable by means of a radical removal of a system that has led the country to the brink of disaster.
From the beginning of his provisional ascent to power, in his scarce and relatively brief public interventions, he pronounced the need to carry out economic changes, inaugurated by a period of less political activism, with a bit of a rest for people that for decades have been obliged to mobilize themselves incessantly in endless demonstrations and actions in order to convey an image of the popular support for the regime.
As a result, these indicating factors created cautious hopes about the start of liberalizing economic transformations from the blocked productive forces. Special importance was given to the speech that Raul Castro gave on July 26, 2007. On that occasion, he recognized the deplorable state of the economy – particular in the agricultural sector – the inadequate salaries to cover the cost of living, and announced the need to carry out structural reforms and his concepts. He also demonstrated a more flexible attitude towards future relations with the United States, and the possibility of undertaking conversations on equal terms with the next elected administration in November 2008.
A little before he gave that speech, Fidel Castro had begun to publish articles in the media under the title of Reflections from his sick bed, which gave him the opportunity to present contrary opinions to those being offer by the General. An example was his opinion denying any arrangement with the United States, clear proof of the conservative sectors’ existence in the ranks of the government and the Communist Party, filled with people, like the old strong man, that are fearful about the possibility of economic reforms being a prelude to political changes and could lead to the end of almost 50 years of totalitarian years of rule.
Raul Castro was confirmed as the president of State and the Council of Ministries on February 24, 2008. Upon delivering his speech and assuming his new title, he reiterated the possibility of executing changes, starting with the elimination of prohibitions that he qualified as absurd.
Inside Cuba his words increased the hopes of gradual transformations, although the initial ones would only be economic, with the prediction that they would create the condition for a smooth landing for a democratic society. The current situation for the population is quite difficult, given people earn a monthly salary of 408 Cuban pesos (which at the end of 2007 was equivalent to 13 Euros), the majority of pensions are 200 pesos a month (roughly 6 Euros), and the nature of the dual currency system. Thus, it is impossible for people to use the majority of stores with the national currency in which they receive their salaries and their pensions to acquire basic necessities among the many other wrongs generated by the crisis.
Weeks after he assumed power, Raul Castro authorized the population to buy computers, DVDs, motorcycles, mobile telephones, and some electric appliances and ended the prohibition of Cubans being allowed to stay in high priced hotels only payable in Convertible Pesos (CUCs) that will make it impossible for most people to do it.
These superficial measures created the illusion that even bigger changes were on the verge of starting, like the establishment of flexible mechanisms for the travel outside of the country, the transfer of lands into the hand of people interested in cultivating them and steps to granting Cubans the right to operate their own businesses, initially through the authorization creating small and medium size businesses, among other transformations that would allow for the efficient use of the country’s economic potential that has been underutilized up to now.
Sadly, since June everything seems to indicate the almost complete paralysis of the reforms. Even though in July a law was announced to delivers lands for cultivation in usufruct, its characteristics are very limited and they indicate the will of the regime to maintain its strict control over society.
Lastly, it can be affirmed that Raul Castro’s speech this last July 26th was neither favorable in regards to economic changes nor to improving relations with the Unites States, in spite of the fact that one candidate, Barack Obama, during his electoral campaign has expressed his disposition towards initiating conversations with Cuba without conditions.
The General President’s speech, as well as the sudden halt in the dynamics of the reforms, has frustrated the population and created many questions about the future of the reforms and the true intentions of Raúl Castro. Many people think that Fidel Castro, with his conservative beliefs, is blocking the changes that are urgently required from his sick bed. It cannot be forgotten that he has been the revolution’s historic leader and that his figure still casts a long shadow over the society that he has controlled with an iron hand down to the smallest details.
In everyway possible, the situation is not an easy one for Raul Castro. He does not have the political stature that his brother once had, and the population’s disgust is presently growing due to an endless crisis that is now fertilizing their frustration. The political capital of the government is exhausted and there are only two clear options left: either to do reforms and elevate the standard of living for the people or to drive the country into the chaos and deal with the consequences.
The next few months will be very difficult, the increase in the price of food has eaten up the small purchasing power of a country that presently acquires 84% of its food from abroad, while more than 55% of its own fields lie idle. In addition to these concerns one must add the serious rise in fuel prices and the considerable drop in the price of nickel, which currently accounts more than 50% of Cuba’s exports already low capacity.
If there was anything certain that came out of Raul Castro’s speech [on July 26, 2008], it was the warning to the people that they should prepared themselves for hearing bad news. In a world threatened by economic crises, the situation in Cuba is even more complicated by the small capacity of its own economy to deal with it, and above all, the government’s ineptitude to do something necessary in order to confront the risks.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe an independent Cuban economist and journalist, who was one of the ‘75’ prisoners of conscience arrested in 2003 during the Black Spring. He has been a prominent and outspoken dissident in Cuba for more than a decade after becoming deeply disillusioned with Castro during the Special Period.