Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cuba leader makes cautious speech

News Americas
Cuba leader makes cautious speech

Raul Castro, Cuba's president, has made a keynote speech as part of
celebrations to mark 55 years since the communist government took power
in the country.

But Castro did not unveil any dramatic economic and social policy
measures in his televised address on Saturday to mark Revolution Day.

"Despite some expectations from people, Castro did not mention reforms,"
Rachel Levin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Havana, said.

"He did acknowledge that some Cubans are going through some serious
economic hardship but he said that the Cuban government is really doing
all it can and that the country can only really spend what it makes."

Thousands of people filled the streets of Santiago de Cuba, the
birthplace of the Cuban revolution where Raul Castro made his address,
to mark the anniversary events.

Patience sought

Castro has already implemented a raft of changes since his brother Fidel
stepped down in February, after nearly 55 years as president.

Raul Castro, 77, told the Cuban parliament on July 11 that he would
examine social and economic issues in his Revolution Day address.

But Levin said that Castro simply called on Cubans to be patient in
Saturday's address.

"He sent a message that people need to tighten their belts but also that
efficiency in the country needs to improve," she said.

"He talked a lot about infrastructure; how the [government] is making
improvements to roads, water, bridges and so on."

Raul's address comes as analysts look for signs whether Cuba is shifting
towards a market-based economy after more than half a century of being
under a command economy.

Castro's government has in recent months allowed Cubans to buy mobile
phones and to stay in hotels previously reserved for foreigners.

Supply shortages

Other policy changes, such as the right to own private taxis or farmland
and the lifting of salary ceilings, have been approved but are yet to be
fully implemented.

Cuba still experiences shortages of power and food but electrical
outages have become rarer and shorter.

Fidel Castro continues to exert significant influence in Cuba [AFP]
In his July 11 speech to parliament, Raul Castro permitted vacant
farmland to be placed in private hands.

That policy has been seen as the biggest change since the new president
took power, but Washington has called Castro's policies "cosmetic".

The US and Europe has also called on Cuba to release political prisoners
and allow Cuban civilians to express dissent.

Vicki Huddlestone, a former US mission chief to Cuba, said Raul Castro's
address did not contain any significant shifts in policy.

"Raul [was] his usual rather dull, pragmatic self. Probabaly the most
important thing that happened today was the location and the celebration
of Fidel," she said.

"I think getting the infrastructure right is inmportant to Cuba and to
Raul. It symbolises his commitment to improve the economy. But this is
very much what the Cuban hierarchy wants - slow and steady."

The Revolution Day celebrations are centered on Santiago de Cuba, where
the Castros and their supporters launched their campaign to overthrow
the previous regime on July 26, 1953.

They succeeded in 1959, carrying Fidel Castro into power. Fidel held
power firmly until July 2006, when ill health prompted him to hand power
to his younger brother.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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