Cuba reforms don't herald much change

A Cuban man carries his new computer bought in a Havana store on May 2, 2008. Cubans are now allowed to purchase computers for personal use, something previously limited to state companies.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: The president's had Cuba on his mind this week. Yesterday he held a first-ever videoconference with some high profile Cuban dissidents in Havana. In a speech today to the Council of the Americas he said there's been no change at all since Raoul Castro took over from his brother in February. The president also said he's not persuaded by recent pictures showing Cubans buying cell phones and laptops.

GEORGE BUSH: Cuba will not become a place of prosperity just by easing restrictions on the sale of products that the average Cuban cannot afford.

RYSSDAL: David Adams has been covering Cuba for the past 20 years. He's just back from his most recent visit. Mr. Adams, good to have you with us.

ADAMS: They do show an inclination to change things that haven't been working in Cuba, and many analysts feel that that's a good step in the right direction. But as people often say in Cuba, "You know, I can't eat a cell phone." And the thing that is uppermost in most Cuban minds right now is "How am I going to improve my diet and how am I going to improve my living conditions, on the meager salary that I make?" And you know, most Cubans only make, more or less, between $10 or $15 a month.

RYSSDAL: Assuming Raoul Castro wants to keep the revolution alive, and I suppose we all do have to assume that, how's he going to do it when people see these luxuries, but can't get at them making $10 a month?

ADAMS: Well, I think that's the key. I mean Raoul Castro is looking long-term, and he knows that if the revolution is going to survive, then it does have to find a way to improve the quality of life of Cubans, and that, right now, really rests upon improving its food production. Cuba pays a huge amount of money to import food, and so the most important reforms, which we haven't mentioned, and they really are the most important reforms, is a decentralization of the agricultural production system in Cuba, allowing independent, private farmers to have greater autonomy over the land that they produce on. This means actually giving out idle state land and giving them incentives to produce more, and allowing them greater say in where they sell and at what price they sell, and Raoul Castro's hoping that that's going to put a lot more food in the marketplace's in Cuba, and hopefully bring up the value of the Cuban pesos, the state salaries that Cubans make, and give them a little bit more purchasing power, but that's going to, obviously it's going to take awhile. It's going to take several harvests.

RYSSDAL: What's the word in Spanish for "reform?"

ADAMS: Reforma, "cambio" is "change." The government doesn't seem to like the word "reform." They prefer the word "change" or "lifting of restrictions."

RYSSDAL: What's your sense out on the streets of this "cambio?" Are people expecting it, or are they just shrugging and saying oh, it's more of the same?

ADAMS: Some people, they tend to be older, people often who have a little bit of access to foreign currency, and so that their living conditions are a little bit better than those who live on the Cuban peso, and they tend to be slightly more optimistic. Then, you know, you talk to other people, particularly those people who are living on the Cuban peso and have no access to remittances from family abroad for example, and for whom life is extremely difficult, they have to scratch together every meal, and they're not optimistic. I have to say, someone I've known for some years told me, you know, to be honest, we're actually worse off today than we were in July 2006 when Fidel got sick. We really have no hope for change. We know this system is the system that they intend to keep us living under as long as they possibly can.

RYSSDAL: David Adams is the Latin American bureau dhief for the St. Petersburg Times down in Florida. Mr. Adams, thanks so much.

ADAMS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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