During ceremonies held in July 2007 to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Raúl Castro, the shy and pensive younger brother of Fidel Castro, told a crowd of 100,000 loyalists in the city of Camagüey that the country was in serious peril, struggling to survive and meet the needs of its people. “No one country can afford to spend more than what they have,” he said during a one-hour speech. “To have more, we have to begin by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency.” Yet nobody could have predicted the massive wave of reforms that Raúl would implement after Fidel Castro retired as president in February. The man who stood by his brother’s side for more than 50 years—supporting Fidel as he severed ties with the U.S. and imposed suffocating policies—is steering Cuba in a new direction, and with a radically new mindset.
To cure Cuba’s ailing economy, Raúl has invited private farmers to plant tobacco, coffee and other crops on unused state land in an effort to put more food on the table for all Cubans and bring in hard currency from exports. (Farmers who do well can increase their holdings by up to 40 hectares for a 10-year period that can be renewed.) He’s made it easier for state workers to gain title to their homes and restored an earlier policy of giving performance cash incentives to workers. In addition, Cubans now have the freedom to rent cars, stay in luxury hotels, buy consumer electronics, and use cellphones, albeit with certain restrictions.
On the ground, some changes are easy to spot. “They have a functioning bus system now, where people aren’t crammed to the gills like they used to be,” says Karen Dubinsky, a history professor at Queen’s University, who in May visited Havana to launch a course on Cuban culture and society in conjunction with the University of Havana. Over the past three years, Cuba has ordered more than 6,000 new buses from China, the country’s second-largest trading partner behind Venezuela. Trade between Cuba and China has blossomed from around US$900 million in 2005 to $2.2 billion last year.
While in Cuba, Dubinsky also met Raúl’s daughter, Mariela Castro. As head of the National Centre for Sex Education, Mariela is pushing forward legislation to recognize same-sex relationships and the rights of transsexuals. In June, her efforts paid off with the announcement that Cubans could undergo sex change operations, even stipulating that in certain circumstances the state will cover the cost. It’s a significant move by a regime that formerly sent gays and lesbians to forced labour camps for “re-education.”
Some observers say that Raúl’s motivation is a personal belief that his brother’s revolution needs to be modernized. “Raúl is a more flexible thinker. He’s not a liberal, but he’s more liberal than his brother,” says Robert Wright, an expert on Cuban history and author of Three Nights in Havana: Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and the Cold War World. Wright adds that Raúl, like Fidel, is keenly interested in the well-being of Cubans, but is more open to getting them past some of the limitations of Fidel’s revolution.
One aspect of Fidel’s legacy that Raúl wants to change is what Wright calls “tourism apartheid.” To keep the country financially alive after Moscow cut off its subsidies in the early ’90s, Fidel pampered tourists to generate revenues. But leery of any counter-revolutionary ideas filtering to the masses, Fidel didn’t want his people rubbing shoulders with outsiders, and Cubans were left to feel like second-class citizens, forbidden to walk on their own beaches or enter certain buildings. Now the government has allowed Cubans into tourist hotels and resorts.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Raúl and Fidel is that the younger brother is willing to repair the country’s frosty relationship with the U.S., and there is a glimmer of hope that an American leader will sit down and listen. Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate since 1960 to campaign on a platform that promotes open dialogue with Cuba. To enhance Cuba’s image in the eyes of America, Wright suggests that greater reforms are needed in Cuba when it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other basic rights that are championed in the U.S. Given the path down which Raúl has already taken his people since he officially took over as leader in February, it seems plausible to suggest that it might only be a matter of time before Wright’s suggestion becomes a reality.