February 20, 2008 in Nation/World

Many Cubans see possibility of change

Frances Robles McClatchy

Also today

On the Web: Castro defiantly stood his ground against 10 U.S. administrations. Find a profile and additional coverage at spokesmanreview.com.

Inside: U.S. policy change likely to come slowly/A11

MIAMI – Facing miserable salaries, high food prices and laws that make most profitable activities illegal, Cubans are increasingly hoping that Fidel Castro’s decision to step down will open the island’s doors to significant economic reforms.

Castro’s announcement Tuesday that he will not to seek re-election as president may be just the break his brother Raul had been waiting for, experts say.

Raul, 76, is considered a reformer whose hands have been tied by the looming presence of an older brother who stepped aside because of an illness nearly 19 months ago but continued to voice his opposition to reform from his hospital bed through his recurring newspaper columns.

The announcement marks the official end of 49 years of rule by one of the world’s last communist rulers and a steady thorn on the side of U.S. presidents, although the 81-year-old is expected to remain a powerful voice as long as he lives. His carefully-managed succession of power deals a blow to South Florida’s exile community, which had long hoped to see the Castro dictatorship toppled.

Cuba’s National Assembly meets Sunday to choose the 31 members of the Council of State, the government’s top body. They’re also expected to elect the Council’s president, the title long held by Castro. Most experts say the actual decision will be made exclusively by the two brothers, with an eye toward maintaining a socialist revolution in the face of apathetic youth and a frustrated public.

With one Castro out of the way, the big question now is who will be chosen as Cuba’s next leader, and whether that person will have the authority to make changes that will put more food on Cubans’ tables and money in their pockets.

As South Florida exiles clamor for democracy and freedom for the island, Cubans there cry for better housing, buses and lives in a country where the average monthly salary is $15.

“Nobody talks about Fidel Castro anymore,” said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. “What everybody talks about is change, change, change. And they think Raul Castro has been blocked from making those changes.”

Castro announced in a letter published in the newspaper Granma on Tuesday that his health will not allow him to accept another term as president. He did not say Raul would succeed him, or whether he would step down from his other powerful post as head of the Cuban Communist Party.

He suggested he had lost mental faculties at one point during his illness, and hinted Raul had pressured him into clinging to his title until this week even though his health was poor.

“It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,” the letter said. “Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process.”

His absence from the political scene raises many new possibilities for the revolution, particularly since nearly two thirds of the country’s 11.2 million people were born after 1959 and have known no other leader but Fidel.

Yet Castro’s successor will take office amid increasing complaints against the system’s shortcomings, particularly high prices and low wages.

“The most important thing now is Feb. 24th, and whether or not they will elect Raul or someone like Vice President Carlos Lage, who could be the face of change – someone who if he goes too far can be sacrificed,” said Uva Aragon, associate director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “If it gets out of hand, Raul can step in with repression, and if it works out, he can take the credit.”

Raul must know the stakes are high.

“I don’t think that Raul and the leadership around him have any misconceptions about how much pressure is being generated just below the surface,” said Brian Latell, a retired CIA expert on Cuba. “He has allowed a certain decompression with the young generation, and now he’s going to have to deliver.”

Cubans in Miami took the news in stride, with some dismissing Castro’s resignation as an insignificant development while maintaining hope for future change. While thousands of Cuban Americans took the streets in glee the night of July 31, 2006 when Fidel Castro first announced his illness, only a few dozen gathered in Little Havana Tuesday.

Reaction was also muted in Cuba, where the streets were business-as-usual.

Zaida Cuza, a 95-year-old reached at her home in Havana, said someone must continue Castro’s legacy.

“I am very sad. I love him a lot,” she said. “I want to see Raul get the job, although I know there are others who can also do the job.”

But Laura Pollan, a member of the dissident group Ladies in White, said this is Raul’s chance to prove he is really interested in reform by freeing the more than 200 political prisoners in Cuba. Pollan’s husband, Hector Maseda, is serving a 20-year sentence.

In Africa, a visiting President Bush said he hoped this was the beginning of democracy for Cuba.

“The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy,” Bush said. “Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections.”

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