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As Revolution Reaches 50, Cuba Under Raul Castro Gradually Undertakes Reforms

BY Admin  January 1, 2009 at 1:50 PM EST

Fidel and Raul Castro

Raul Castro was unanimously selected by Cuba’s National Assembly in February to succeed Fidel Castro after his nearly 50-year reign as Cuba’s leader. The younger Castro had largely been in charge since an aging Fidel underwent major surgery in July 2006.

When Raul officially took the reins, he quickly focused on overhauling Cuba’s lackluster economy, which had weakened under trade embargos and long-held communist policies. The first wave of reforms instituted included the right for Cubans to buy new electronic goods, most notably cell phones; the right to operate private transportation practices, such as a taxi or bus routes; the right to obtain the title to a state-owned home; and the right to stay in tourist hotels.

The changes quickly rippled through the country. Tony Zamora, a lawyer and veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Cuba-U.S. standoff, said he often travels to the island and noticed a significant change on his last trip while trying to buy a SIM card — a device used to store the subscriber’s information — for his cell phone. “I went to the place I normally go which is right in front of my hotel and there were 42 people on line. I couldn’t believe it.”

Raul Castro also targeted Havana’s chronic transportation problems in his reform push. In 2007, while acting as de facto president, he began a process of introducing new buses into the system with the goal of purchasing a total of 8,000 buses to buoy the country’s public transit.

The next push targeted Cuba’s agriculture sector. On the island nation, food imports will reach $2 billion this year, according to the Associated Press. In hopes of bringing that number down, Raul Castro issued a decree that would allow private farmers and cooperatives the right to develop up to 100 acres of unused government-owned land, the AP reported.

But as the global financial system slowed, Castro moved in mid-July to slow the economic changes he was proposing.

Referring in particular to a plan to raise wages for state workers, Castro told the National Assembly that the allowable wage increases would “depend on the economic situation of the country, inevitably linked to the crisis in the world today.”

The economic caveat was a new message for Cubans, who had become accustomed to Fidel Castro’s nationalistic speeches during his decades in power. The younger Castro takes a more pragmatic approach, according to Zamora, but “lacks charisma, which Fidel has in abundance, and so he has to deliver” on promised reforms, Zamora explained.

The new right to obtain a title to a state-owned home is aimed at addressing Cuba’s housing shortage, which has led to frustration among many residents. Previously, Cubans could not own their own homes, and while they could swap houses, it was generally a long and difficult process to do so.

Between 500,000 and a million new homes are needed to address the shortage, and officials told the AP that the law is the first of several new housing reforms.

Outside factors also are at play in Cuba’s ability to see the new reforms through. The country has a growing reliance on Venezuelan business ventures, which are increasingly tied to everything from oil, metal production, farm equipment, and health-care support, according to Antonio Morales-Pita of DePaul University, a specialist on Cuba’s economy and politics.

Although there are benefits to Cuba for entering these trade agreements, a deep-seeded reliance on Venezuela could prop up inefficiencies in the Cuban economy, making reforms all the more necessary for the country’s survival, said Morales-Pita.

Relations with the United States also are at play. How the incoming Obama administration will handle policies pertaining to Cuba has yet to unfold. And Fidel’s presence, still keenly felt in Cuba, is bound to influence how U.S.-Cuban ties fare, observers say.

Raul sits next to an empty chair in parliament, ostensibly for Fidel, and he often begins or ends speeches with a clause that indicates everything he knows has been learned from Fidel. According to Morales-Pita, Fidel’s presence is a hindrance to any future reforms.

“As long as Fidel Castro is alive, he will continue interfering with Raul’s actions and very little will be gained,” he said.

Zamora offered a different opinion, saying he believes Raul is practicing an “anti-Fidel” agenda and is only able to do this because of Fidel’s ill health.

With the fate of new reforms in the balance, all eyes will be on Cuba’s next Communist Party congress, scheduled for late 2009, which could include action on broader policy changes, such as foreign investment, further land restructuring, and perhaps increased private business ownership.