Cubans hope for shift toward capitalism
By Wili Weissert
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HAVANA — Fidel Castro spent nearly five decades railing against even the
tiniest of capitalist reforms in the Western Hemisphere's only communist
Now that he is stepping down, some Cubans are hoping his brother, Raul,
will embrace free markets and more if he becomes president on Sunday —
perhaps moving Cuba to something more like Vietnam or China, where
communist leaders let markets largely rule their economies.
"China is a communist country, but the people are free to earn a lot and
buy cars, cell phones," said Alberto, who rolls cigars in a government
factory for $15 a month. "Why can't Cuban communism be like that?"
The answer could start to emerge Sunday when Cuba's parliament meets to
choose new leaders. While Raul Castro is likely to be named president,
the choices for 30 other lawmakers on the Council of State, including
his No. 2, could indicate how far the island's supreme governing body is
willing to go toward opening the economy.
Fidel, 81 and ailing, took himself out of the running Tuesday for the
top spot but may continue to wield enough power as Communist Party chief
to stifle any major changes.
Raul, 76, has already tantalized many reform seekers while serving as
acting president for 19 months. He has urged unspecified "structural
changes" in Cuba's communist system, acknowledged that state salaries
don't meet basic needs and called on Cubans to complain openly when
government control of the economy flounders — although, so far, there
have been few changes beyond better pay for farmers and increased food
And as defense minister, Raul Castro put Cuba's military at the
forefront of the economy, as he and other top military officers assumed
control of such key sectors as electronics imports, cigar exports and
"There could be a new perspective with Raul, new freedoms that are
exciting to some," said Sergio, a 47-year-old government factory worker.
Like others interviewed, he was afraid that having his full name appear
in the foreign press could lead to harassment by supervisors at work, or
even political repercussions. Raul Castro has called for an increased
tolerance of public criticism, but many are still afraid to openly speak
The Cuban government provides free housing, education and health care
for citizens, and ration cards help cover the costs of basic food.
Few Cubans want to part with those benefits and fully embrace U.S.-style
capitalism, although many are hoping the new government could accept
tweaks to the system and enough small economic opportunities to allow
for small quality-of-life improvements.
"No one dies of hunger in Cuba, but the system of everyone equal,
prisoners the same as students, the same as doctors — it doesn't work,"
said Evelyn, a 24-year-old student. "People who work hard deserve to be
This month, student leaders grilled parliament President Ricardo Alarcon
about low state salaries, restrictions on Internet access and rules that
prevent most Cubans from traveling abroad or staying in hotels designed
for tourists — many of the most-infuriating features of daily Cuban life.
Official Cuban media made no mention of the closed event, but pirated
video of it has circulated widely and one student who asked tough
questions later appeared on state television, in an apparent government
effort to prove that his criticisms did not land him in prison.
Even state-run newspapers have produced unusually critical articles
lately, accusing officials of drastically underestimating unemployment
rates and failing to provide sufficient supply to meet demand,
especially for food.
Nearly 80 percent of Cubans work for the government; the average monthly
state salary is about $19.50. Government economists estimate that at
least 60 percent of Cubans have access to dollars, euros and other
foreign currency because of jobs in tourism, with foreign companies or
through funds sent by relatives in the United States.
Still, the government's campaign for egalitarianism limits access to
luxuries such as cell phones and private vehicles.
Even basics such as underwear, shoes and personal care items such as
shampoo and shaving supplies can only be found in stores where the
prices are too high for most Cubans.