Cuba engaging in tentative debate over change

The Baltimore Sun

HAVANA, Cuba -- The economics minister uses phrases like "developing our human capital" while citing ways that the government is battling to improve daily life for its people.

Meanwhile, a key student leader worries that Cuba's youth might be lost to the lures of the flashy consumerism thriving in much of the rest of the world.

These are interesting days in communist Cuba.

While top leaders remain committed to socialism, there seems to be something of a debate going on in Cuba about the island's future. Whether it will result in substantive changes remains to be seen.

For now, the discussion and its possible implications seem tied to the island's 80-year-old leader, Fidel Castro.

Castro has been off the public stage since last July, suffering from a serious stomach ailment that prompted him to turn over the reins of daily power to his brother, Raul, 75.

Known as a hard-nosed pragmatist, Raul Castro surprised some Cuba watchers last fall by offering public criticism on a host of problems: inefficiency, pilfering, black market profiteering and the shabby public transportation system.

He also called for a debate over how to fix the problems, a move that further surprised some Cuba analysts.

Last month, however, the government announced that the results of a study group on the topic might not be available for several years, perhaps a sign that the debate has been shelved.

Still, U.S. analysts say that Raul Castro's frank discussion of Cuba's problems and call for new thinking on solutions is a significant sign. While Cuban officials and even Fidel Castro have railed against problems such as corruption in the past, Raul Castro seemed to be taking the discussion to a deeper level.

"The difference is that when Fidel talks about these problems, the solution is ideological exhortations, discipline and law enforcement," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank. "Under Raul, there is an admission that the system doesn't work."

Analysts say the postponement of the study group's findings may be a sign that Fidel Castro - who has opposed economic reforms in the past - might have recovered enough to engage in daily decisions, at least in a limited fashion.

While he failed to appear at a huge May Day rally, Fidel Castro has been issuing a series of statements on important issues.

"Raul's debate is on hold," said Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, another think tank, and once head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. "Raul is more pragmatic, but he can't launch new policies as long as Fidel is still in the wings reviewing what he does. But the promise is still there."

Smith said he is encouraged that Cuban officials have been unusually blunt about the problems.

"They are being more upfront about the real problems they face," he said. "They have to. The people are telling them, and they can't be ignored."

At a recent briefing for foreign reporters, Economics Minster Jose Luis Rodriquez cited the need "to increase resources to social programs to relieve some of the problems of the population."

In an interview, Leonel Gonzalez, a member of Cuba's National Assembly, echoed the theme, citing initiatives aimed at improving electricity generation, public transportation, housing and food production, saying that the issues "have a big impact on the population."

Cuba's leaders also seem to worry that their four-decade-old revolution is at risk of losing the loyalty of the younger generation.

While older Cubans remember the corrupt system that Fidel Castro and his comrades overthrew, more than 1 million young Cubans were shaped instead by the so-called Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Cuba's loss of about $6 billion in annual subsidies.

Although conditions have improved since the early 1990s, the young grew up in a place of terrible shortages, material want and hunger.

While the Cuban state tightly controls all media and access to the Internet, Cuba's youth get glimpses of life beyond their island through television, videos and music. Many are lured by the flashy clothes and cars they see, leading to inevitable tension in a socialist state.

"There is a trend among youth all over the world to be apathetic, to not want to work or be a part of society," said Carlos Lage Jr., head of the Federation of Cuban Students and son of the country's vice president. "Human beings have material necessities. We need to teach our youth that life is more than material things and money."

Whether Cuba will succeed in this task could be the most important factor in determining the path the island follows to its future.

But some Cubans believe that their country is already changing.

"There is a debate in Cuba like I've never seen," said Omar Everleny, an economist with the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. "For one, there is a public discussion about the reality of [low] Cuban salaries and high prices. The state knows about these things and is listening to the opinions of the people. I've never seen Cuba at such a moment."

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