Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cuba adapts well to the absence of its bearded leader

Cuba adapts well to the absence of its bearded leader

ARTICLE (July 29 2007): There is a near-unanimous opinion held in Cuba
these days: "Everything is the same, nothing has changed." One year
after Cuban President Fidel Castro "temporarily" gave up power to his
younger brother Raul, some hold that opinion with relief, and others
with growing frustration.

When Fidel underwent surgery and surrendered the tasks of government on
July 31, 2006 - his first leave of power since the 1959 Cuban revolution
- Raul Castro faced the tough job of simultaneously maintaining the
status quo and introducing needed changes, with the long shadow of his
elder brother ever hanging over him.

Stylistically, the changes have been extreme. In the place of Fidel's
strong personality and long, passionate speeches, Raul has offered his
traditionally discrete persona and rarely made public appearances.
"There are no longer as many marches, just small gatherings," says a
young resident of Havana.

And without the long speeches, "television schedules are respected more
tightly," says another. But Raul Castro, heading a team set by Fidel,
has also introduced timid political and economic reforms, the fruits of
which may still take some time to be realised. All changes must be in
line with a policy of "continuity" proclaimed by Cuban officials, who
steadfastly reject the use of terms like "succession" or "transition" to
describe the current situation on the island.

Widely considered a pragmatist, Raul Castro has demanded greater
efficiency and fewer justifications from the National Assembly for
things that are not functioning. In his first address to the legislature
in December, he targeted three issues: transport, food distribution and
the acute housing deficit of more than 400,000 homes.

"It is not a government fond of self-complacent figures, but a
government which engages in self-criticism," admits Manuel Cuesta Morua
of the social democratic alliance Arco Progresista, an opposition group
that favours a pact with the government for a democratic transition.

In early January, Cuba witnessed an unusually critical debate among its
intellectual community, while the government is currently studying legal
reforms to recognise the civil and property rights of homosexual couples.

Renewed dialogue with Spain, including human rights issues, and Raul's
two offers of a "table for dialogue" with the United States have also
been interpreted as attempts to achieve the "normalisation of Cuba as a
country within the international community," according to Morua.

"You need to make the most of it. The normalisation maintains the status
quo, but it opens up spaces - it can be a lighter status quo," Morua
said. Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organisation of
American States (OAS), seems to have recognised a similar shift. Earlier
this month, Insulza said that with Raul Castro in command "there has
been a change that points to the evidence of a certain transition, of a
certain change in power relations within Cuba."

However, not everyone appears to perceive such changes, or otherwise
considers them insufficient. The United States still demands a
transition to democracy, and within Cuba there remains a broad sector of
the dissident movement which says it is "disenchanted" with the interim
government of Raul Castro.

"There have practically been no changes. It seemed like there were going
to be some, especially in the first few months with talks with the
United States, quite strong criticisms in the press," said economist
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, one of 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 and currently
outside prison for health reasons.

"But it did not go beyond that and the climate has been dying down," he
said. According to Espinosa Chepe and other sectors of the Cuban
opposition, the force putting a break on the changes has a name: Fidel

The Cuban leader is "like a hurdle they cannot overcome," like being
"inside a strait jacket which does not let them move," said Espinosa
Chepe. Juan de la Vina from Miami adds

The euphoria seen in Miami after Cuban leader Fidel Castro's first-ever
transfer of power to his brother Raul has turned into outright
disappointment one year after the handover. On July 31, 2006, Miami was
boiling with activity: Fidel had "temporarily" given up power to undergo
surgery for intestinal bleeding.

Cuban exiles in Little Havana, Hialeah and other parts of Southern
Florida, carried Cuban flags, honked their car horns and shouted
anti-Castro slogans, along with symbolic expressions like "Viva Cuba"
and "Libertad" (freedom).

Others celebrated by the restaurant Versalles and its surroundings - a
meeting point favoured by Cuban exiles - until late into the night and
over the following days as the news spread like wildfire. The jubilant
mood has since changed.

"There has been a sort of let down, because people always expected that
when (Fidel) Castro was no longer directly in power his absence would
provoke more solid symptoms of some change in the country," Ramon Saul
Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, told dpa.

The transfer of power in Havana led many in Miami to cheer, thinking it
was a historic moment that would pave the way for the inevitable
transformation of Cuba. But Sanchez believes Raul Castro has done little
to open up the country.

"(Fidel) Castro is no longer directly giving orders ... But the same
crude policy continues, of repression against the civic opposition in
the country," Sanchez said. "In fact, dissidents have been jailed,
repudiation acts continue, so the iron policy against the peaceful
opposition has not died down."

Twelve months have gone by since Fidel Castro underwent surgery, yet on
both sides of the Florida Strait life goes on as normal. The 80-year-old
Cuban president has made no public appearances and speaks only through
the occasional video and articles in the state- controlled media.

But anti-Castro activists are not ready to give up hope just yet. "We
still think that this process is irreversible for this regime by now. I
mean, the deterioration is going to continue. Those of (Fidel's)
generation, who have done so much harm to Cuba, are going to disappear
gradually," said Sanchez.

Sanchez has fought for the rights of Cuban exiles in the United States
and went on hunger strike several times in protest of the return of
Cubans found at sea. "Over 50 years the Cuban government has not managed
to rejuvenate the revolutionary project it championed and never
accomplished, because in Cuba there is really only a dictatorship that
keeps the people in huge scarcity," Sanchez said.

"And although there have not been changes in Cuba, for us it is the
beginning of the end of that tyranny which will force Raul to carry out
reforms when Fidel Castro is not on the Cuban scene, due to internal and
external pressures," he added.

The civil rights activist said that if the Cuban government does not
introduce reforms that help the Cuban people, "conditions can worsen in
such a way that they lead to a social explosion with incalculable

As Miami's Cuban exile community looks toward Cuba with one eye, they
watch the United States with the other. There too, exiles see a danger
in the fact that more and more people are speaking against the
decades-long embargo the US has kept in place against Cuba. While the
embargo still stands, voices have risen over the past year against
sanctions and in favour of opening up trade with Cuba.

Another attempt to soften the embargo was defeated in the US Congress.

Tomas Robaina, of the Domino Network association, said he recently
travelled to Washington to "inform" members of Congress of those fears.
"We have to remind (the United States) more than ever of the atrocities
that are committed in Cuba. We feel that outside Miami there is not as
much understanding," Robaina said.

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