Stealth reforms calm Cubans

Sunday, March 2, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Loory: Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, after leading a revolution that overthrew American-supported dictator Fulgencio Battista. Nine American presidents have served since then. Two-thirds of people in Cuba now weren’t born when he took over. Last week, at age 81 and ailing, Castro resigned from Cuba’s presidency and handed power to his younger brother Raul, who is 76. That’s not much of a generation change. Fidel says he will continue writing and publishing his ideas about Cuba and the world. He intends to stay in the limelight. Cubans live in a mismanaged country where the economy is a shambles, the average monthly wage is said to be $15 to $18, energy is scarce, public transportation is shaky and the country’s infrastructure is in disrepair. However, health care is good and inexpensive. Life expectancy for Cubans is similar to that for North Americans, and infant mortality is considerably better. The literacy rate is almost 100 percent, indicating a good education system. Communism doesn’t seem to have worked any better in Cuba than it did in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, and Fidel’s Cuba has been under a difficult economic embargo from the U.S. for virtually all of its 49 years. What might happen in a Raul Castro regime that will be different from a Fidel-led Cuba?

Anthony Boadle, correspondent, Reuters, Havana: At first sight, it looks like more of the same. However, during Raul’s 19 months as acting president in Fidel’s absence, we’ve seen minor changes, a stealth reform. There have been no announcements to annoy Fidel. But, for example, now anybody with a car can become a taxi driver. Customs regulations allow family members visiting from the States to bring electrical appliances and DVDs, things that Cubans covet.

Loory: When Raul was elected, he wasn’t wearing the traditional military garb he’s worn for 49 years. His first international visitor was the cardinal in charge of the Vatican’s international relations. Are these meaningful signs?

Boadle: They are signals, although Raul’s been wearing a suit for broadcast events or for meeting international dignitaries. The significance of Raul meeting with a Catholic Church leader is that the Catholic Church traditionally has been opposed to Communism. Also, Cuba’s foreign minister is signing two human rights covenants at the U.N. that Fidel had refused to sign.

Paul Knox, chair, Ryerson University School of Journalism, Toronto: Changes are happening by stealth. Tackling Fidel head-on is out of the question, but people are more relaxed about certain things. For example, in independently owned restaurants, the restriction is that only 12 people can sit and eat at once. That isn’t being respected in many cases, and people aren’t shy about inviting you to their homes to share a meal. But the general frustrations are still enormous. Hundreds and thousands of people have to solicit rides because there’s a weak long-distance transportation system. That productivity is lost because people are flagging down passing motorists to get around is tragic.

Loory: Has Mexican President Felipe Calderon changed Mexico’s attitude toward Cuba?

Malcolm Beith, national and international editor, The News, Mexico City: He has certainly tried. Since he came into power at the end of 2006, he pledged to normalize relations with Cuba. They were pretty much ruined under Vicente Fox with the public spat that resulted in the ambassador being withdrawn from both countries. Nothing dramatic has changed in the last few weeks. Calderon’s foreign secretary is going to Cuba in mid-March, but Calderon has been clear he wants to work with a more open Cuba.

Loory: What short-term steps can Raul take to increase Cuba’s standard of living?

Boadle: Cubans’ main complaint is that they earn in one currency, the Cuban peso, but they purchase consumer goods in a convertible currency called the CUC. The conversion rate is about 24 pesos to the CUC. Raul mentioned that he’s studying a re-evaluation of the peso that would close that gap. If Cubans were allowed to buy and sell their homes or their cars, to travel more freely, to stay at hotels currently reserved for foreign tourists, that would go down well. Housing is a priority. Up to eight or 10 families live in over-crowded mansions that were once grandiose. Now they’re divided into little apartments.

Loory: How much does Cuba suffer from the American-imposed embargo?

Boadle: Although the Cuban government blames the embargo for economic wrongs in Cuba, most Cubans don’t see it that way. They see an inefficient system that needs major correction. Ironically the U.S., under an exception to the embargo, has been the largest food provider to Cuba since 2001. Cubans are eating corn and wheat produced by U.S. farmers, so it’s far-fetched to blame the embargo for the poor quality of life.

Loory: What is the state of tourism in Cuba?

Knox: Cuba is a popular destination, and Cubans have been aggressive at making sure their price points are competitive with other Caribbean destinations. There’s a lot of independent and specialized travel to Cuba. Some people take package tours to the beaches. Some take cycling or bird watching tours. The big European and Spanish hotel chains have been aggressive in forming partnerships with the Cuban government. However, if Cuba becomes a society that doesn’t produce anything but is simply a playground for foreigners, that’s not the model that the Revolution was fought to implement, and the social implications will be interesting. One has to question, politically and economically, what is Cuba best situated to produce for the rest of the world?

Boadle: About 2 million visitors come to Cuba each year. Tourism is said to generate $2 billion in income. Currently, tourism is stagnant because of the quality of services and the dollar’s value. Cuba is seen as an expensive place where you’re better off traveling elsewhere to get more for your money. The government is banking on the U.S. lifting travel restrictions. New hotels with specifications for American customers are being built, and they’re clearly aiming at the lifting of travel restrictions and, eventually, the embargo.

Loory: How are Cuba’s relations with Latin America?

Beith: Cuban immigration is crucial. Refugees are coming through countries like Mexico, landing in Belize and Guatemala, and using that as a route to the U.S. Calderon wants to crack down on immigration, while simultaneously criticizing U.S. border policy. There’s no sign of a mass exodus, but if Cubans keep coming through Central America and Mexico, that could cause tensions.

Loory: Is it time for cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba?

Boadle: Definitely. Under the Clinton administration, the Washington Ballet and the Baltimore Orioles came to Cuba. That stopped with the Bush administration and presumably will start again. Raul has extended an olive branch. He’s willing to talk to the U.S., but he’s looking beyond the November elections and says the ball is in the U.S. court. The U.S. would have to negotiate on equal grounds, accepting Cuba’s political system instead of trying to overthrow it before talking.

Loory: It may be time for more cultural diplomacy or for a loosening of the half-century economic embargo. Certainly leadership change in both countries, the U.S. and Cuba, may make that possible.

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