Cuban President Raul Castro called on his countrymen during a speech on Sunday to work harder and not use the 47-year-old US embargo on the communist country as an excuse for poor production.
The call came during his address marking Revolution Day, which celebrates an attack led by Raul Castro’s 82-year-old brother Fidel that Cubans consider the beginning of the revolution that led to the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“The land is there, and the Cubans are there. Let’s see if we are working or not, if we are producing or not, if we are keeping our word or not,” Castro said in a speech that focused mainly on Cuba’s serious economic woes.
“It’s not a question of shouting ‘Homeland or death,’ ‘Down with imperialism,’ ‘The blockade hurts us,’” he said. “The land is there, waiting for us to put the effort into it.”
Three years since Fidel Castro was seen in public, the younger Castro showed signs he was 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. He later harpooned his own Agricultural Ministry, asking how previous Cuban generations managed to ever grow even a single mango tree if all state advisers do today is say there’s no money for reforestation.
Tens of thousands of supporters, most wearing red T-shirts or caps, filled a grassy plaza dotted with red and black “July 26” flags.
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.
Instead, an eight-story banner on a building behind the crowd featured both Castros thrusting their arms skyward under the words “The Vigorous and Victorious Revolution Keeps Marching Forward.”
Despite Cubans’ hopes for change after Raul took over as president, economic reforms that were supposed to ease life on the island have been slow to come.
Raul Castro said improved agricultural output was a “strategic” imperative for Cuba, which imports about 84 percent of its food.
The longtime military chief holds top office in Cuba as the country struggles with a major economic crisis. It has had to increase its imports from US$1 billion to US$2.8 billion this year because of damage caused by three hurricanes that ravaged the country last year.
Cuba has also suffered from the global financial downturn and the collapse of prices in the nickel market, which is Cuba’s No. 1 export good.
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.
Castro has asked Cubans to be patient as he implements “structural changes” to a struggling economy more than 90 percent controlled by the state.
Though Raul Castro mentioned the US embargo, he did not focus on foreign policy, and the anniversary speech broke with tradition in containing no reference to five Cubans imprisoned in the US for spying on the anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami.
He also failed to mention deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, whose ouster has been carefully followed by Fidel Castro. The former Cuban president has published opinion pieces about the military expulsion of leftist ally Zelaya.
Fidel Castro gave his last Revolution Day speech in Holguin in 2006 before undergoing serious intestinal surgery that eventually led to his handing the presidency to his brother.
Officials from Cuba and the US 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 country, 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,” said housewife Elena Fuentes, 73, 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.”
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