Debate grows in Cuba six months after hand-over

By Anthony Boadle
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; 8:57 AM

HAVANA (Reuters) - Six months after Cuba's sick leader Fidel Castro handed over power provisionally to his brother Raul, signs of an opening in public debate are emerging in the communist-run country.

Articles have appeared in the government-controlled media since October uncovering theft in state enterprises and other previously unmentionable deficiencies in Cuba's economy.

In unusual public statements, Cuban intellectuals have denounced the resurfacing of censors who were responsible for blacklisting writers and homosexuals 30 years ago.

The state conceded it made a mistake and allowed 400 writers and artists to hold an unprecedented meeting on Tuesday to discuss the Stalinist-style cultural purges of the 1970s.

The new climate of debate emerges amid deep uncertainty over Cuba's future due to the failing health of Castro, the last of the key Cold War players still in power, and the implications are anybody's guess.

The 80-year-old revolutionary's brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 75, once seen as a Communist hard-liner, in 1996 emphatically ruled out a Cuban "glasnost," the policy of openness that preceded the fall of the Soviet Union. He is believed to favor a Chinese-style opening of the economy.

Fidel Castro relinquished power on July 31 a few days after he was rushed to hospital with intestinal bleeding. He has not reappeared in public since.

Officials insist he is recovering slowly and will be back at the helm of the nation he has led since his guerrillas took power in a revolution in 1959.

Cuban state television showed video of him on Tuesday night meeting his leading Latin American ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the day before. Castro looked frail but stronger than he had in previous footage released in October.

But many Cubans doubt they will see Castro again in his trademark military fatigues giving another marathon speech.

Cuba watchers say the low-profile Raul is firmly in charge of the one-party state and has brought a vastly different style of government. He has shared out responsibilities and sent other officials to represent Cuba at international events.

Where Fidel once dominated state television with frequent, and seemingly endless, revolutionary monologues, Raul is rarely seen, and even more rarely speaks.


Some Cubans welcome the change from Fidel Castro's ideologically driven speeches to his brother's more practical focus on tackling Cuba's most pressing problems, from decrepit housing and public transport to rampant corruption in the state bureaucracy.

"Leadership has become more collective. It is no longer centered on one person. Cuba is being run more rationally, with less political agitation," said dissident writer and economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.

The acting president has taken credit for stirring some of the debate, saying he has prodded the uncritical Cuban media to play a greater role in identifying economic shortcomings.

Raul surprised Cubans by encouraging greater discussion on government policies and more transparent state management. He said the country was tired of excuses and criticized delays in paying private farmers who provide 60 percent of its produce.

"Raul has made a point of abandoning Fidel's practice of scapegoating others. Instead, he is admitting that the revolution's problems are serious and home grown," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of "After Fidel."

"The good thing about Raul is that he listens," said a Cuban economist who asked not to be named.

Raul has commissioned studies from think tanks on how to raise food production and stimulate the economy without ruling out private ownership of small business, he said.

The new openness to debate was put to the test two weeks ago by the angry outburst of complaints from intellectuals over the appearance on television of officials responsible for witch-hunts against writers not toeing the party line on proletarian revolution in the 1970s.

"Each day there are more intellectuals speaking up, and that is new in Cuba," said dissident Espinosa Chepe.

But he said economic reforms wanted by most Cubans --the average monthly wage is $17-- are too slow in coming and Cuba may face turmoil without a leader of Fidel Castro's stature to contain it.

"Cuba is stable for the moment, but there is a lot of discontent on the streets," he said.

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