Sunday, August 10, 2008

Apathy, rising prices prevalent in Cuba, but rebellion is scarce

Raul Castro's supporters tout island's stability


Houston Chronicle Foreign Service, August 9, 2008

HAVANA, CUBA — Fidel Castro turns 82 on Wednesday as brother Raul tackles a monumental challenge: Keeping the revolution alive despite a widening generation gap.

Since the Castro brothers swept into power in 1959, many of the original rebels have died. Those still living are in their 70s and 80s. And the socialist government they built faces a sagging economy, rising food prices and a restless populace — more than 70 percent of whom were born after the revolution.

"The government educates people, but they don't have good opportunities when they get out of college,"said Phil Peters, an expert on Cuba who has traveled to the island more than 30 times. "The result is not rebellion. It's immigration."

Some people take a darker view. "The economic situation is terrible," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a Havana dissident who once was an economic adviser to Fidel Castro. "Neither young people nor anyone else wants to work."

The supporters of the Castro brothers dismiss such talk. Cubans face economic difficulties, but "there are no tanks on the street corners," said Miguel Alvarez, chief adviser to Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly. Cuba, Alvarez said, is a "stable country, a tranquil country."

Lowered expectations

To be sure, the socialist government has surprised many of its critics over the years. It has survived the fall of the Soviet Union and has defied 10 consecutive U.S. presidents.

Even after Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006 and dropped from public sight, the socialist government remained unbroken.

"Predictions that Fidel's absence would trigger a change in the political or economic system have not come to pass," Peters said. "Fidel Castro has been out of the picture for two years now, and the place is stable."

Raul Castro, 77, the longtime chief of the armed forces, was confirmed as president in February. He quickly lifted several unpopular government restrictions, allowing Cubans, for instance, to own cell phones and stay in hotels normally reserved for foreign tourists.

But he also has tried to lower expectations, warning there would be no quick fixes. "The goals of our people in terms of material goods cannot be very ambitious," he told a crowd July 26, repeating a line from a 1973 Fidel Castro speech.

Revolution continues

Don't expect any dramatic government restructuring, either, a Cuban official said on condition of anonymity.

"There's no perestroika. No glasnost," he said. "We know what happened in the Soviet Union. We're not so foolish or suicidal."

Raul Castro may be more inclined than his brother to experiment with free-market measures.

"Raul realizes that he's got to get the economy performing better," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of After Fidel, a 2005 biography of Raul. "But he has to look over his shoulder all the time because there are some hard-liners opposed to these changes."

Government supporters deny there's any dissension over the younger Castro's tactics.

"Raul is continuing work that Fidel started," said Octavio Ambruster, a pro-government journalist in Santiago de Cuba. "This is a continuation of the revolution."

Unused farmland

Raul Castro says his priorities include finding ways to boost food production. Much of the nation's farmland sits idle, forcing Cuba to import the bulk of its food.

"Young people want to be doctors and engineers, not farm workers," said Hober Hernandez, a delegate to Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture.

Complicating things, some Cubans say, the United States continues trying to block most trade with the socialist government. "Fifty years of economic war" is what Alvarez, the adviser, calls it.

Some analysts believe that the American strategy plays into the hands of hard-liners in Cuba, giving them a scapegoat for the socialist government's failings.

Indeed, the Castro brothers often point to U.S. policy to whip up nationalist fervor.

"I love the revolution," said Aimee Vega, 16, who lives in Vista Hermosa, a village outside Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city.

"And if we young people have anything to do with it, this revolution will not fall," said Vega, who plans to study medicine.

The price of a mango

Not all Cubans are quite so revolutionary.

"I'd leave Cuba if I could. I don't think things are going to get better for 1,000 years," said Betty, 25, a part-time prostitute in Havana. "I'm educated. I have a history degree. But look what I have to do for a living."

Cuba has one of the most literate work forces in Latin America, but young people complain of low salaries.

Most government jobs in Cuba pay less than $20 per month. And although rent, electricity and many other expenses are heavily subsidized, many workers say rising food costs have hit them hard.

One Cuban complained that a single mango now costs 40 cents — 5 percent of his $8-per-month pension.

But Cuban officials say the economy isn't nearly as bad as some paint it.

"If people were dying of hunger," a Cuban diplomat said on condition of anonymity,"the revolution would have collapsed."

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