By Ray Sanchez | Sun-Sentinel.com Havana Bureau
9:25 PM EDT, July 26, 2008
SANTIAGO DE CUBA - Returning to the birthplace of the Cuban revolution
for the island's biggest political event, President Raul Castro Saturday
night prepared Cubans for tough times ahead.
"As much as we desire to resolve all of our problems, we can't spend
more than we have," Castro said under a slight drizzle on a humid night.
"To make the best of what we have, it is indispensable to save on
everything, most importantly fuel."
Castro, 77, only the second president of Cuba in the past half century,
in the past year has taken modest steps away from the strict communist
line followed by brother Fidel, the once-all-powerful leader who ruled
the island since 1959.
But his 48-minute speech Saturday offered few hints of where he intended
to take the country. He focused instead on local aqueduct and road
repair projects as well as the past achievements of the revolution.
"We must bear in mind that we are living in the midst of a true world
crisis which is not only economic but also associated with climate
change, the irrational use of energy and a great number of other
problems," he said.
Castro said the passage of time since the revolution had taught Cubans
to learn from the past.
"We must take advantage of every minute and learn fast from every
experience, even from our mistakes," he said.
Wearing his trademark eyeglasses and military uniform, Castro announced
that Santiago would be the site of festivities marking the 50th
anniversary of the Cuban revolution next January.
And in an appeal to hard-line party leaders, the former defense minister
said Cuba would continue to build up its military "regardless of the
outcome of the next presidential election in the United States."
The holiday commemorates the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada
barracks in the southeastern city of Santiago. The attack by the Castro
brothers and a ragtag group of guerrillas failed but was the beginning
of the revolution that eventually ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
To chants of "Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" Castro took the podium before the
hulking army barracks, now a school. Thousands of flag-waving,
red-shirt-clad Communist Party loyalists began chanting Fidel's name an
hour before the event.
Saturday, the yellow-and-white building was draped with a giant Cuban
flag and the image of the 81-year-old Fidel Castro, who stepped down in
2006 after surgery for a mysterious intestinal illness.
The younger Castro took over provisionally for Fidel in July 2006. Since
taking power officially last February, he has sought to put his own
stamp on the country.
In recent months, he has allowed Cubans with enough money to buy cell
phones and computers, which had previously been restricted. He has
allowed them to rent cars and visit tourist hotels. He also has taken
the limits off state salaries, allowing for productivity bonuses.
In one of his more significant reforms, Raul Castro has opened more
unused state land to private farmers in an attempt to reduce food
imports and revive the sluggish agricultural sector. Though he hinted at
"structural" reforms last July 26, those changes have yet to materialize.
Cubans have mostly embraced the modest changes even as they complained
that giving them access to consumer items did little to boost state
salaries, which average about $20 a month.
"We need to change in order to advance," said Manuel Segarra, 68, a
retired telephone company worker seated a few rows from the podium where
Castro spoke. "I feel reborn and very proud be here, where our
After the speech, Migdalia Wilson, a 31-year-old social worker, said
Castro's message was clear. "We need to conserve and get ready for hard
times," she said. "But that will make us stronger."
This year's festivities coincided with carnival in Santiago, where
thousands of residents party late into the night. One partygoer, Eusebio
Ramirez, 40, said most Cubans had little reason to celebrate.
"Every year things get worse," he said. "The government needs to turn
this around quickly. People are fed up."
Castro has disappointed some Cubans who had expected significant changes
once he took power. He has always deferred to his brother and appears
reluctant or unable to take major actions until Fidel dies, analysts said.
A larger-than-life figure, Fidel Castro wields great influence. But it
is equally clear that Cubans have prepared themselves emotionally for
life without him.
While Raul moves toward consolidating his rule, some sectors of the
Cuba's leadership appear reluctant to roll back the elder Castro's
decision in 2003 to centralize the economy again and restrict the
small-scale private enterprises that emerged in the 1990s after the fall
of the Soviet Union.
In 2006, Fidel Castro led thousands of party faithful in cheers to
celebrate the Moncada attack. It was the last time he was seen in public.
Ray Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.