Thursday, September 13, 2007

Raul Castro works on quality-of-life issues

USA Today

Posted 7h 45m ago

By Anita Snow, Associated Press

HAVANA — With Raul Castro in charge, Cuba has raised payments to milk and meat producers, is paying off its debts to farmers and has stopped blocking the import of parts needed to keep vintage cars rumbling along.

Travelers can even bring in DVD players and game consoles, highly coveted by Cubans starved for high-tech entertainment.

Raul's ailing brother Fidel is still showing leadership behind the scenes, and as provisional president, he has only taken small steps. But he's already giving clues to how he might govern once he takes full control — paying special attention to quality-of-life problems, publicly scolding state managers and bluntly acknowledging that salaries don't cover basic needs.

The new Chinese buses on intercity routes are evidence of the Raul effect. They were in the planning before Fidel got sick, but they have become much more visible since Raul gave a speech late last year saying he was sick of hearing bureaucrats' excuses and wanted results.

To boost food production, lawmakers agreed in June to pay producers 2½ times more for milk and meat included in the island's heavily subsidized ration program and in meals provided at similarly low-cost workplace cafeterias, schools, hospitals and community centers. The prices consumers pay will remain the same.

At the same gathering National Assembly members were told that the state had just paid off debts worth US$23 million (euro17 million) to the small farmers and cooperatives that grow two-thirds of the island's fruits and vegetables, and renegotiated $35 million (euro25 million) in other debts.

The change is evident in style too. Where a Fidel speech could devote hours to communist, his brother's oratory is much more short and direct, and Cubans love his public attacks on government failures.

But 76-year-old Raul is only a caretaker president, and officials insist that 81-year-old Fidel will be back. And as long as Fidel is alive, no one thinks Raul will dare to make big moves that could annoy the older brother he has loved and admired since they were boys.

Thomas Fingar, the U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence, told the U.S. Congress in June that while the Cuban public has high expectations of improvement, "Significant, positive political change is unlikely immediately."

As caretaker president, Raul has "very limited running room," said Cuba analyst Phil Peters, of the pro-democracy Lexington Institute think tank outside Washington. "He seems to be looking for small practical things that can make Cubans' lives easier."

Cuban exiles in Miami are consumed with rumors that Fidel is dying or dead. But Cubans on the island rarely mention him nowadays — they're already more focused on what Raul, Fidel's constitutionally designated successor, will do.

They were pleased to hear him confirm on television that state salaries fail to cover basic necessities, and some even cheered when Raul delivered a slap at inefficient state managers by commenting sardonically about government farms infested with a fast-growing, thorny bush called marabu.

They nodded knowingly as Raul publicly questioned why all Cubans aren't guaranteed milk in their monthly food rations, not just children under 7. They also noticed that the milk comment was dropped from the official transcript of the televised speech.

On a personal level, Cubans were moved to see Raul appearing to choke back a sob after kissing an urn containing his wife's ashes at her state-televised funeral in June. The cameras also showed a vault next to Espin's that already bears Raul's name — an unusual acknowledgment of a Cuban leader's mortality in a country where talk of Fidel's death has always been taboo.

Cubans have never had such a personal glimpse of Fidel, who does not appear in public with his family, and they don't know where or how his funeral will take place.

Authorities insist the brothers are united, and bristle at suggestions Raul is more open to change than his brother. They note that Fidel also hinted at reforms in November 2005, when he acknowledged that if government corruption and inefficiency are not controlled, "this revolution can destroy itself."

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote in an essay e-mailed to international media that he suspects government hard-liners are worrying that possible changes could undermine their legitimacy. He also noted that just five days after Raul said he would be open to discussing improved relations with a new U.S. president, Fidel wrote that the United States — "the empire" — would never negotiate with Cuba.

In the past, Raul expressed interest in China's model of a market economy in a one-party state. But Vice President Carlos Lage says Cuba won't copy that model.

"The countries now working to build socialism in different parts of the world," Lage said, "are doing so in situations very different politically and economically from ours."

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