Saturday, June 21, 2008

Past, Present and Future Changes

By Patricia Grogg HAVANA, Jun 20 (IPS) - Cuba is paradoxically the same, yet not the same, under President Raúl Castro, who said he would change "everything that should be changed" to perfect the socialist path taken by the revolution nearly half a century ago. While most of the expected or predicted transformations have yet to materialise, the stage is being set by ending some of the prohibitions that particularly irritated a society educated for decades to be egalitarian. Digna María likes to say that she now feels like other Latin Americans, because she can have a mobile phone, spend a night at a five-star hotel, or buy a computer. "I may never be able to afford to do any of those things, but I have been given back my right to do them," she said with conviction. She disagrees with those who argue that lifting the restrictions preventing Cubans from staying at hotels reserved for international tourists was merely a "cosmetic" change. "I could never understand the reason for that ban," Digna María told IPS, on condition that her surname be withheld. Her remarks reflect the reception of some of these unaccustomed novelties in Cuban society, where hope is mingled with uncertainty and contradictions, together with frustration in some sectors aspiring to more radical changes, either for or against socialism. Government decisions taken in March and April granted Cubans access to mobile phones, computers, motorcycles, DVD players and other household appliances, sold in the network of shops accepting only hard currency. "They were particularly irksome prohibitions. The fact that Raúl (Castro) eliminated them was understood by many people here as a liberalisation or a vindication," a veteran of the rebel army commanded by Fidel Castro which took power on Jan. 1, 1959 told IPS from Santiago de Cuba, 847 kilometres east of Havana. FUTURE CHANGES Many people are hoping that other restrictions will soon be cancelled, such as limitations on foreign travel, the right to own homes and cars, and broader freedom for self-employment, which has been permitted for an increasingly narrow range of occupations and subject to rules that sometimes make it impracticable, according to economic sources. Cubans wishing to travel for personal reasons need a letter of invitation from a friend or relative abroad, and an exit permit from the authorities, among other requirements that hinder and, in some cases, prevent them from making the trip. In April there were persistent rumours that a reform measure eliminating both these restrictions was about to enter into force, although it was said to exclude doctors, military personnel, and recent university graduates who had not completed their obligatory two years of social service. According to sources knowledgeable on migration issues, these exceptions have complicated the adoption of the new measures. But the very fact that flexibilisation of rules that have been in force for decades is being discussed is seen as another important change. "People feel that they are finally being listened to," a researcher said. These and other changes, regarded as necessary by the majority of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, are part of 1.3 million proposals that emerged from debates convened by the government itself to discuss a critical speech by Raúl Castro on Jul. 26, 2007, when he was still acting president. Among the concerns expressed was the fall in the quality of public education, once an untouchable subject, which was debated at the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC), held in early April. Then Education Minister Luis Ignacio Gómez was dismissed before the end of the month. Another sign of the times was the Jun. 4 approval by Public Health Minister José Balaguer of standards for comprehensive medical care for transsexuals, including free sex change operations. RAÚL CASTRO’S PRIORITIES A discreet man known for his outstanding organisational skills, Raúl Castro announced in July 2007 the main planks of his government programme. At that time he was provisionally replacing his 81-year-old brother Fidel, who is still convalescing from the illness that prompted him not to seek another presidential term in February. This week, which featured an official visit to Havana by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez starting on Wednesday, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution showed that while he has to rest, he has not fully retired from the national political scene. Vázquez held official talks with Raúl Castro and visited the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in Havana, where he thanked Cuban doctors who carried out free eye operations on 2,000 Uruguayans. He also spent two hours and 20 minutes in conversation with Fidel. "Fidel is alive and kicking, thinking, writing and creating important strategic guidelines for Cuba and Latin America. And Raúl has taken up the reins," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said during a lightning visit to his ailing friend on Tuesday. Official video images and photographs of the meeting showed the Castro brothers and Chávez talking about the impact of soaring world food prices, which they called "a strategic issue and a national security problem." The issue is of the highest priority for Raúl Castro, a military strategist who had already taken measures to guarantee food for the Cuban people in the economic crisis of the 1990s, arguing that at that time "beans were more important than guns." In his speech last July, Castro admitted that salaries were too low and that farming did not produce enough to supply the food needs of a country where the cost of food imports this year will rise to between 1.9 and two billion dollars. In keeping with his promise "to introduce whatever structural and conceptual changes are necessary" to increase productivity in the Cuban countryside, the agricultural and livestock sector is being restructured, beginning with an increase in the prices paid by the state to farmers for milk and meat. The restructuring is ongoing, and its full extent is still uncertain. As far as is known, it will include giving more decision-making power to the municipalities, establishing new forms of marketing, and even distributing idle land to small farmers. STRAIGHT TO THE POCKETBOOK In regard to wages, a February Labour Ministry resolution widened the system of performance-based payment (with productivity bonuses) to the entire state enterprise system, in order to stimulate production. It was explained that the purpose of the resolution is to "increase productivity, reduce expenses and costs, and decrease energy consumption," as well as improve the quality of goods and services, replace imports, and increase exports and state revenues. As for workers not covered by the performance-based wage system, in May a wage increase of up to 55 percent came into effect for the judicial sector, as well as a general raise in pensions and assistance to low-income families, of up to 20 percent. The Sixth Congress of the governing Communist Party, to be held in late 2009, is regarded as a key milestone in the process of change, especially for determining a forward-looking economic strategy that will supercede solutions improvised on the spur of the moment. The Congress may open up new channels for diversity, in a society that is learning to be more tolerant of difference, and to discuss frankly and without fear of disagreements. "Never before have people talked so openly about their reality in the streets of Cuba," said one local writer.

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