Cuban President Raul Castro has told his compatriots to expect more hard times, but failed to usher in more reforms that many Cubans had been hoping for.
The speech marking the 55th anniversary of the start of the communist revolution led by his brother and former president Fidel Castro, came on Saturday, two years after Fidel’s last public appearance.
“We’re still short of many things we would like our people to enjoy ... but no matter how hard we wish to resolve each problem, we can’t spend more than what we have,” Raul, 77, told an estimated crowd of 10,000.
His speech, an echo of his address to lawmakers earlier this month, was given at the Moncada barracks — today a learning center — from where he and his brother Fidel launched the communist revolution in 1953 that six years later would sit them in power.
“We will continue to focus on defense, independently from the results of the US presidential elections,” he said, referring to Cuba’s neighbor and arch-enemy who is watchful of all Raul Castro’s steps since he formally took Cuba’s helm in February.
Standing under a huge portrait of his 82-year-old brother, Raul Castro announced that Cuba will hold its “Bastion 2008” military exercises “with the utmost quality and rigor” in November to coincide with the US presidential election.
“Preparations to defend the country are going well,” said Castro, who until February had been Cuba’s top general for nearly 50 years.
“At the same time,” he said, “the engineering adaptation of the military operations theater, the updating of weapons and other military hardware, as well as the promotion and training of officers has been continuing.”
He announced that this city, Cuba’s second-largest, will kick off the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s revolution — when Fidel Castro took office — on Jan. 1, and dedicated Saturday’s celebrations to his brother Fidel.
The speech included few hints that after more than half a century of hardline socialist policies, the regime was embracing a broader market-oriented shift in the footsteps of fellow socialist states China and Vietnam.
As in his July 11 speech to parliament, Raul Castro warned of hard times ahead, telling Cubans that “to draw maximum benefit” from our existing resources “we need to save on everything,” especially fuel, in light of spiraling crude oil prices.
“We don’t expect a unanimous response, which is usually fictitious. We must in a timely fashion explain to our people the difficulties so they can be handled. We’ve got to get used to not hearing only good news,” he said.
However, unlike his earlier speech, Raul Castro on Saturday did not announce any new reforms like the placement of vacant farmland in private hands — considered the reform with the greatest potential economic impact to be unveiled since he became president.
The land reform followed other changes that with little fanfare have been announced in recent months, such as the right to buy mobile telephones and to stay in hotels previously reserved for foreigners.
Other reforms, such as the right to own private taxis or some farmland, and the lifting of salary ceilings, have been approved and are waiting to be applied.
But there is uncertainty as to whether deeper changes are on the way.
The country continues to suffer power and food shortages, but electrical blackouts have become rarer and shorter. And brand-new Chinese-made buses can be seen in the streets — which are themselves repaired more quickly by workers.
The modest changes have been welcomed, as well as Raul’s tough but frank talk.
“Raul always calls things by their names and never makes a promise he cannot keep,” Alexander Despaigne, a 20-year-old student at Saturday’s gathering said.
Washington has dismissed Castro’s reforms so far as “cosmetic” and, with Europe, has demanded political prisoners be released and dissent tolerated.
But recent one-day roundups of dissidents suggest Raul Castro’s administration is not prepared to allow more room for the political opposition in the near future.
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