Friday, September 24, 2010

Raul Castro Opens Up Cuba, Slowly

Cuba is changing. President Raul Castro has revealed plans to dramatically increase private sector employment in the Communist country. Ordinary Cubans will be allowed to set up their own businesses in dozens of different fields, and even hire employees.

Mr Castro says all this is to help "continue perfecting socialism." What he really means is that the measures are to help keep him and his regime in power. Raul has always been more open-minded about this sort of thing than his brother Fidel, who he succeeded as President in 2007 when the older man's health deteriorated. It was Raul who persuaded Fidel to open the country to limited tourism in the early 1990s, when Cuba faced ruin after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the cash supply from Moscow which had seen it through the previous quarter of a century.

Although many restrictions have been placed on tourism in Cuba, even down to keeping a separate currency for foreigners, it's proved impossible to stifle the curiosity and jealousy of some locals. Those who have access to even small amounts of the special tourists' money, such as waiters and tour guides, can become far wealthier than their neighbours. Allowing western cash into Cuba may have saved the country's economy, but it has created real inequalities in its supposedly equal society.

So Raul has chosen to widen his reforms, to keep his people happy, and make the country a bit richer. He can get away with this because of his personal credibility and connection to the Revolution, something many Cubans remain proud of. Raul was there alongside his brother, Che Guevara and the rest throughout it all. With Fidel ailing, he's the only man left with the clout to carry through such reforms.

But this is also about what happens when the Castros are dead, probably not too far off now. It's likely that, without that personal connection to the Revolution, a future Cuban leader would struggle to command the country and its people in the same way the Castros have been able to. Wide-ranging reforms would have been extremely difficult to carry through without the danger of a counter-revolution, and the collapse of the Communist regime.

Raul Castro is probably banking that, if he changes Cuba just enough before he goes, he'll give his successor a better chance of keeping Cuba together, and keeping it Communist. The irony is, these latest reforms mean Cuba is becoming less and less Communist by the day.

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