by Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Cuba, July 27, 2007 – Cuba’s acting president, Raúl Castro, made a frank assessment of the situation in his country Thursday, acknowledging difficulties and challenges faced by Cubans in their daily lives, ruling out the possibility of short-term solutions, and warning that it is essential to bolster production, especially of food.
Castro also reiterated his government’s willingness to hold talks with officials of the administration of whoever succeeds President George W. Bush in the US elections in January, with a view to resolving the tensions that have kept the two countries apart for over four decades.
The new US administration “will have to decide if it wants to keep up the absurd, illegal and failed policy against Cuba or whether it will accept the olive branch that we extended on the 50th anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces,” said the interim leader, referring to statements he made in December.
Castro was speaking Thursday in Camaguey in east-central Cuba, on the 54th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, the first attempt by his brother Fidel Castro at overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
This year, 80-year-old Fidel was not present at the ceremony, as he is still convalescing from a string of intestinal surgeries. He temporarily handed over power to defence minister Raúl a year ago next Tuesday.
Raúl, 76, said his brother’s illness was a “major blow” but that Fidel “is engaged in increasingly intense and extremely valuable activity…although not even in the worst moments did he stop contributing his wisdom and experience in the face of every problem and key decision.”
While he admitted that the months following Fidel’s initial emergency operation were “very difficult,” the effect was “diametrically opposed to what his enemies were hoping for, as they dreamed….that Cuban socialism would end up collapsing.”
“Despite our profound pain, no task was left undone, and there is order in our country, while work has gone ahead busily,” said Raúl.
His words were widely anticipated, because they coincided with the anniversary of his taking power, and were seen as an indication of what can be expected in the times to come.
“His speech gave me hope that things may get better,” schoolteacher Luz Marina González told IPS.
She said that one of the biggest problems for her family is putting food on the table. “We have a house, my husband has a motorcycle and takes me to work, and the kids’ school is nearby. But my huge challenge is cooking every day. We can’t afford to cover all of our household expenses.”
“We are aware…that in the midst of the obvious difficulties that we are facing, wages are clearly insufficient to meet people’s needs,” said Raúl Castro, who also warned however that production must increase before any wage increase or price reduction can be adopted.
He underlined the need to boost agricultural production and expand the experiences of successful farmers, but said that “to achieve this objective, structural changes must be introduced.”
Despite a decent level of rainfall, agricultural production shrank 7.3 percent in 2006, sparking major debate prompted by criticism voiced by Raúl Castro in last December’s sessions in parliament.
During the debates, it was established that one of the causes of the problems facing agriculture was the state’s huge debts to farmers. But in recent parliamentary sessions, it was confirmed that the debts have been paid off, and that mechanisms were put in place for immediate payment for crops at harvest time.
Only 55 percent of Cuba’s farmland is currently under cultivation. Some 100,000 private producers and members of cooperatives produce more than 50 percent of the country’s food, although they only possess 32 percent of the country’s arable land.
Experts say that if agricultural productivity does not go up, the country will have to increase spending on food imports, which already grew 35 percent over the last two years, according to official figures.
The rise in just the price of milk on the international market will mean an additional 340 million dollars in spending for Cuba in 2008, more than three times what it spent in 2004, said Castro.
Sociologist Aurelio Alonso said it was significant that the interim president mentioned people’s main concerns, such as food prices, low wages, and low labour, agricultural and industrial productivity.
“The sensation left after listening to Raúl is that there are perspectives for the future, for a readjustment and changes with regard to both external and internal circumstances,” said Daniel Bittencourt, a foreign professor who has lived for over three decades in Cuba. “He didn’t make any promises, but I believe he sowed hopes.”
Raúl Castro also referred to a possible increase in foreign investment to provide capital, technology and markets for Cuba’s development, and a strengthening of cooperation and aid based on respect for the route chosen by each country. (IPS)