Havana, Cuba – Raul Castro has kept his promise.
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Unlike his older brother, Fidel, who ruled supreme for almost half a century until severe health complications forced him to cede power to his sibling in 2006, Raul chose to set his own timetable for launching the post-Castro era.
In and of itself, that is a reflection of his pragmatism – perhaps the 86-year-old Communist leader’s most notable characteristic.
As Cuba’s powerful defence minister and first vice president for nearly five decades, Raul never contradicted Fidel, the “Supreme Leader” – at least not in public.
But as soon as he took over as president in 2008, two years after assuming the role of acting president, he started lifting some of the most unpopular restrictions imposed under his brother’s rule.
In 2006, only foreigners were allowed to have a mobile phone, internet access, buy a car or stay at Cuban hotels and beach resorts.
Cubans were more than pleasantly surprised when Raul abolished these humiliating practices. He also legalised the sale and purchase of homes and eased many long-standing travel restrictions.
“Maybe we were betting on the wrong Castro all along,” joked a Cuban taxi driver who preferred to not give his name.
As part of his plan to “update Cuban Socialism”, Castro opened up the cash-starved economy to a small private sector.
People were allowed to offer services as construction workers, plumbers, painters and so on. Restaurants, bed and breakfast hotels, as well as art galleries, began appearing all over the island.
But while these reforms revealed a vibrant Cuban entrepreneurial spirit, they also exacerbated income inequality in what is supposed to be a classless socialist society. This led to pressure within the Communist Party to roll back on some of the reforms.
And while Castro expressed admiration for the Chinese and Vietnamese models, like Fidel, he never gave up the state’s control of the main areas of the economy.
In fact, under Raul Castro, the Cuban military increased control over the island’s main industries, especially tourism.
Meanwhile, salaries remained dismally low. A state employee earns about $30 a month, while a bottle of cooking oil costs $2, or seven percent of a monthly wage.
Raul Castro failed to turn back the tide of young Cubans who dream only of emigrating in search of better opportunities.
“I hope the next president will do more so that we don’t have to leave our country,” said Diesmel Gonzalez, a musician from Guantanamo.
“We need freedom to express ourselves, to work without so many restrictions, to earn a decent salary. Raul made some improvements, but not enough.”
Just like his elder brother, Raul Castro never contemplated relinquishing or even slightly easing the Communist Party’s tight political grip on the island nation.
State control of the media is absolute, opposition political parties and organisations are illegal and dissidents continue to be rounded up, harassed and imprisoned when they become too bold.
Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray argued that Raul Castro’s principal goal was to guarantee continuity.
“He wanted to set in motion a system that will reproduce the structure of power with the Communist Party at the centre of power after Fidel and he are gone. He wants the party to function much as the Vietnamese party functioned after Ho Chi Ming, much as the Chinese Communist Party functioned after Mao and Deng Xiaoping … And that is what he has organised, in a relatively short time.”
The biological clock is ticking. And no matter how well-planned his transition is, for the first time in six decades Cuba will be led by a person who does not carry the name Castro.