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Many Cubans hope economic reforms coming

Fidel Castro spent nearly five decades railing against even the tiniest of capitalist reforms in the Western Hemisphere's last communist country.
Cuba Fidel Castro
People buy meat at a butcher's shop in Havana on Wednesday. After Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced Tuesday his intention to retire, many Cubans look to his brother Raul to ease restrictions.  Ariana Cubillos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fidel Castro spent nearly five decades railing against even the tiniest of capitalist reforms in the Western Hemisphere's last communist country.

Some Cubans are hoping his brother, Raul, would embrace free markets and more if he becomes president Sunday — perhaps moving Cuba to something more like Vietnam or China, which also have communist leaders who control all things political, but 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 production.

And as defense minister, Raul 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 tourism.

"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 their minds.

Compensation for hard work
The Cuban government provides free housing, education and health care, 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 paid well."

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.

There was no mention of the closed event in official Cuban media, 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 and the average monthly state salary is about $19.50. Government economists estimate 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. While the government provides credits for major appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and televisions, buying or selling homes to anyone but the government is forbidden.

Clothing, electronics and grocery stores that cater to foreigners are often well-stocked with products unavailable anywhere else, from toilet paper and disposable diapers to items not fully covered by the subsidized food rations, such as beef, milk and cooking oil.

Even basics such as underwear, shoes and personal care items like shampoo and shaving supplies can only be found in stores whose prices are too high for most Cubans.

A pair of Nike Air Force I sneakers costs the equivalent of $140, while a bottle of soft contact lens solution from Bausch & Lomb sells for the equivalent of $16.75.

Many Cubans were upset by a recent law requiring people who work for foreign companies to pay taxes on foreign currency income they get in addition to their tiny salaries paid in Cuban pesos. Yet the measure could one day give rise to a true middle class, since it legalizes what was long a potentially illegal practice of earning foreign currency — and acknowledges that Cubans working with international companies make far more money than compatriots in government jobs.

For the first time under communist rule, Cuba may be ready to allow a large percentage of its population accumulate wealth — as long as they pay taxes.

Vladimir, a 27-year-old who studied economics at the University of Havana, said he supports Raul Castro's small steps so far, but recently quit his job at a state agricultural cooperative and sees working with a foreign company as his only hope.

"I think, 'What can I have in 10 years?' and it's very sad," Vladimir said. "I can work very hard, but with a state salary, I can't buy a house, an apartment. I can't plan a life other than living with my parents."