Raul Castro said Sunday that the global economic crisis means tougher times ahead for Cuba, but the country has no one to blame but itself for poor farm production that leads to frequent shortages of fruits, vegetables and other basics.
In a speech marking Revolution Day, Cuba's president said the island can't simply pin all its problems on Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo. He implored Cubans to take better advantage of a government program begun last year to turn unused state land over to private farmers.
"The land is there, here are the Cubans," he said, pounding the podium. "Let's see if we get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our word."
A matter of national security
The line did not get much of a response from a crowd not thrilled about working under the island's scorching tropical sun, but the 78-year-old Castro called agricultural production Cuba's top priority and a matter of national security.
"It is not a question of yelling 'Fatherland or death! Down with imperialism! The blockade hurts us,'" he said, referring to U.S. sanctions begun in 1962. "The land is there waiting for our efforts."
He made almost no other mention of the United States.
On the third anniversary of the last time his 82-year-old brother Fidel was seen in public, the younger Castro showed signs he is getting more comfortable with national addresses, opening with a joke about how whoever designed the stage failed to provide any shade for the speaker or the crowd.
Tens of thousands of supporters, most wearing red T-shirts or caps, filled a grassy plaza dotted with red and black "July 26" flags. Revolution Day, the top holiday for the communist government, commemorates the date in 1953 when the Castros led an attack on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. The attack was a disaster, but Cubans consider it the beginning of the revolution that culminated with dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster on New Year's Day 1959.
Unlike in his last two holiday speeches, Raul Castro did not address the crowd with a sculpture or banner of his brother's face nearby.
Cubans asked to be patient
Instead, an eight-story tall banner on a building behind the crowd featured a picture of both Castros thrusting their arms skyward under the words "The Vigorous and Victorious Revolution Keeps Marching Forward."
Despite Cubans' hopes for change after Raul formally took over as president in February 2008, economic reforms that were supposed to ease life on the island have been slow to come. Meanwhile, Cuba's economy has been hammered by the global economic crisis, and U.S. relations have not improved much under President Barack Obama.
Raul Castro "was working to improve things, but with all that's happened with the economy in the world, the effect has been minimal," said Silvia Hernandez, a retired commercial analyst for a state-run firm in Holguin, where Castro spoke.
Castro has asked Cubans to be patient as he implements "structural changes" to a struggling economy more than 90 percent controlled by the state. He also has said he'd be willing to meet with U.S. leaders over any issue — including the country's political prisoners and human rights record, though he made no mention of that Sunday.
Travel restrictions lifted
Officials from Cuba and the U.S. discussed immigration this month for the first time since 2003. The Obama administration lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island. But Washington has said it wants to see small political or economic reforms before going further.
"The other side doesn't want to do anything," housewife Elena Fuentes, 73, said referring to the Obama administration. "We've been like this for 50 years. That's too long. They talk about 'change,' but the change we want is for things to get better with the United States."
In recent months, the government has ordered lights and air conditioners turned off at banks, stores and other government institutions and closed state-run businesses and factories early to conserve oil — even though Venezuela sends the island about 100,000 barrels of crude a day at favorable prices.
Farming and land reform have bolstered production of vegetables somewhat, but government money problems have delayed imports of other food, causing shortages of basic staples such as cooking oil.
Doling out unused state land
Castro said that since state officials began doling out unused state land to private farmers and cooperatives, 82,000 applicants have received more than 1.7 million acres — nearly 40 percent of underused or fallow state land. The program bets private interests can boast an agricultural sector crippled by decades of government mismanagement.
He also said Sunday that government leaders will meet in coming days to assess the affect of the global crisis on Cuba's economy, "particularly the significant reduction of income from exports."
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a dissident anti-communist and was jailed in 2003, said Castro has failed to keep his promises as president.
"He knows times have changed, but ... he hasn't confronted the very strong inertia within the government," said Espinosa Chepe.
Cuba's free health care and subsidized food and housing don't make belt-tightening any easier in a country where nearly everyone works for the state and the average wage is less than $20 per month.
"More steps against the crisis, more adjustments, aren't going to be easy," said Reina Delgado, a 70-year-old retiree.