Castro speech likely to reflect tough times in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans are not likely to hear much encouraging news about their economy or the state of U.S.-Cuba relations when President Raul Castro gives his main speech of the year on Sunday amid difficult times on the communist-led island.

Raul Castro

Raul Castro

Last year, many Cubans thought Castro might use the annual July 26 address, which marks the anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution, to announce economic reforms.

But he warned them instead to get used to “not receiving only good news.”

Since then, the economic news has gotten steadily worse and thoughts of reform have diminished as Castro has eschewed big changes in favor of trying to make more productive the state-run economy put in place by older brother Fidel Castro.

Cubans had hoped long-bitter U.S.-Cuba relations might improve quickly under U.S. President Barack Obama, but so far progress has been mostly limited to a partial rollback by Obama of some of the Bush administration’s most hardline policies.

The U.S. president is maintaining demands that Cuba must improve its human and political rights before the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on the island can be relaxed further.

When Castro takes the stage in the eastern city of Holguin on Sunday, his address marking the July 26, 1953, rebel attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba will probably sound familiar, Cuba expert Paolo Spadoni said.

“I think his speech will be in line with the one given last year, stressing again the need to tighten the belt because of the precarious economic conditions,” said Spadoni, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

Many inside and outside Cuba thought Raul Castro would open up the island’s economy after he replaced his aging, ailing brother as president in February 2008 and quickly decreed that Cubans could buy cell phones and computers and use previously off-limits tourist hotels.

But his only major reform has been in agriculture, where he has decentralized decision-making and put more land in private hands.

Cuba Flag

Cuba Flag

“It is clear by now that heightened expectations were largely unmet,” Spadoni said. “Right now we are not talking of moving toward the Chinese (economic) model or making major changes toward liberalization,” he said.

BLACKOUTS AND CUTBACKS

Cuba’s fragile economy has been battered by the global economic crisis and three hurricanes last year, the effects of which have left the government with little operating cash.

It has resorted to belt-tightening measures such as scheduled power blackouts to conserve energy, reductions in public transport, selected factory shutdowns, cuts in spending and the freezing of foreign business bank accounts.

The latter proved so counterproductive that the policy was partially reversed.

After 50 years of austerity, the latest economic hardships have left many Cubans frustrated with Raul Castro.

“So far he has not made one change that raises us up, just the reverse. He has made changes but I still don’t see any benefit,” said maintenance worker Daria Marquez. “I would like for him to be more liberal.”

While many Cubans still express faith in their leaders, others say their hopes for better lives lie with Obama and his stated desire to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

Obama has eased the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba by removing limits on family travel and remittances to the island imposed by President George W. Bush, and has restarted talks on items of common interest like immigration.

But Cuba’s leaders have made clear in public statements they are disappointed that Obama is not willing to dismantle more of the embargo without political concessions by Havana, which both Castros have said are not in the cards.

“There seems to be a genuine anger that the Obama administration has not attempted something more in reversing Cuba policy. I seemed to note an almost escalating irritation,” said Washington attorney Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba issues.

Despite “promises of change by the new U.S. government, the reality today is that the illegal blockade imposed almost five decades ago against Cuba is still being implemented,” Raul Castro said last week on a visit to Egypt.

Marquez said she would like Castro to tell Cubans in no uncertain terms that he wants peace with the United States and is ready to talk with Obama with “an open mind and without conditions or obstacles.”

“But that’s dreaming, no?” she added.

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