By William Booth, Updated: Friday, April 6, 9:53 AM
HAVANA — The setting was historic. The looming 18th-century Seminary of San Carlos in Old Havana. The attendance remarkable. A hall packed with professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists, diplomats. The subject matter once unthinkable.
Just after Pope Benedict XVI left Cuba last week, the Catholic Church hosted a talk by Miami millionaire Carlos Saladrigas, who politely but directly said here in a public forum that socialism — the bedrock of the revolution — wasn’t working anymore on the communist-run island.
After his first visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict stopped in Cuba, formerly an officially atheist country.
“To be honest,” Saladrigas said later, “who could have thought such a meeting possible? Not me. Never.”
But the meeting was clearly a sign that there is cautious but visible change on the island.
Saladrigas, a Cuban exile entrepreneur and former hard-liner who has flourished in Miami, said that “big changes in the next few years” were inevitable, and he advised young Cubans to stay put. Although Saladrigas said that Cuba’s state-run economy needed to be opened to free enterprise, the 63-year-old investor also blamed the U.S. government and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles and their politicians in South Florida for perpetuating a standoff that has hurt Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.
“Change is not easy, I know this personally,” he said.
“This was an event of tremendous importance, the first time that a prominent Cuban from aboard could express these thoughts in a large forum,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent Cuban economist who attended the meeting. He remarked that Saladrigas and the dozen people who stood at the microphone criticized both the Cuban and U.S. governments — and even offered a few solutions — in voices respectful and calm.
There were tough questions, too, directed at Saladrigas. Participants asked how the Miami exiles could really help Cuba while still supporting the 50-year-old embargo. The questioners wanted to know how U.S.-style capitalism could replace Cuban socialism, without turning workers into wage slaves and leaving the most vulnerable at the mercy of the markets.
In the past three years, President Raul Castro has begun to open the Cuban economy to its citizens. The government now allows small businesses — like car washers, shoe cobblers, pizza makers — to operate, even hire employees, though it restricts the size and ambition of the enterprise.
The streets these days are filled with legal bazaars (and some blackmarketeering) as fledging entrepreneurs dip their toes into the capitalist stream. Some neighborhoods in Havana look like a perpetual garage sale.
The for-profit produce stalls are piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables; the government bodegas that issue staples like rice, beans and oil still serve as a valuable safety net in a country where the average monthly wage is $25, though they feel less vital and look empty.
The state is trying in fits and starts to trim its unproductive workforce. It is beginning to shutter state-run cafeterias and has even floated the idea of ending ration cards. Fallow lands have been offered to free-enterprise farmers, though they complain they can’t get access to tractors or fertilizers. Citizens can now buy and sell their cars — just not new cars — and their homes, too.
JG: The Miami comecandelas are beginning to realize that they haven't accomplished ANYTHING since January First, 1959.