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World & Nation

Cuba draws on the past as it struggles with economic reform

Cuban authorities Tuesday used one of the most important dates in Cuba’s revolutionary calendar to rally their nation to its newest battle: painful but essential economic reform.

President Raul Castro appeared at an early morning ceremony here in lush central Cuba but did not speak. Dressed in a white guayabera shirt and straw hat, he enjoyed chants to his name and greeted guests but otherwise left the speechmaking to others.

The holiday marks the 58th anniversary of the unsuccessful military assault on the Moncada army barracks that launched the revolution that ultimately brought his older brother, Fidel Castro, to power on Jan. 1, 1959.

This year’s celebration comes as Cuba marches along a steady but uncertain path of economic reform. Under Raul Castro’s direction, the communist government is experimenting with a limited form of capitalism that has seen more than 300,000 Cubans acquire licenses to open or work in new businesses, from the selling of trinkets on a corner to running restaurants and hair salons.

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Soon, they will also be allowed, for the first time under the regime, to legally sell and buy property.

But change comes in fits and starts. Thousands of Cubans have lost their jobs as the state attempts to cut deadwood, become more efficient and push workers into a fledgling private sector. And many budding businessmen and women complain of high taxes and shortages of the supplies they need to work.

“The battle we wage today is a daily struggle without quarter against our errors and deficiencies,” Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said in the keynote address. “We must definitively break the mentality of inertia.”

Machado delivered a vigorous defense of the reforms as “permanent solutions to old problems” and said they must proceed and deepen to rescue Cuba’s struggling economy and promote agricultural production. However, he offered few specifics or new insights into the government strategy.

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A crowd of Cubans and a smattering of foreign guests filed into a rain-soaked field just after dawn to attend the ceremony, which was also broadcast live on television and radio. Ciego de Avila, a region of sugar cane and pineapple, is about 250 miles east of Havana. Sitting in the first row, Castro, 80, was flanked by survivors of the 1953 battle or their relatives and also the families of five Cuban men imprisoned in the U.S. on terrorism-related charges, the fight for whose liberation is a cause celebre in Cuba.

The rally took place under a huge billboard repeating Castro’s motto in promoting the reforms: Order, discipline and demands.

Ailyn Rodriguez, 19, was in the crowd with her “revolutionary youth” group. She acknowledged that economic change was a challenge but expressed confidence that she will be able to work in her chosen field of child psychology when she finishes her studies.

“We want the world to know that we, the youth, will take the steps necessary to confront the economy,” said Rodriguez, dressed in a red Che Guevara T-shirt and huge red hoop earrings.

Some in attendance were disappointed that Castro did not speak, having hoped he might better outline government plans. He is likely to deliver important remarks at next week’s opening of the National Assembly.

In another sign of changing times, Fidel Castro was barely mentioned and did not even appear on billboards. The ailing former president, who turns 85 next month, ceded power to his younger brother in 2006 and has gradually taken a back seat in most affairs of state. This anniversary five years ago marked his last public political speech.

Organizers of the event also read out a message from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has come to Cuba twice in the last two months for cancer treatment. Chavez expressed his “gratitude and admiration” for Cuba.

The Venezuelan socialist said this week that he intends to run for reelection next year, but questions swirl about the true state of his health. A malignant tumor was removed last month, and last week Chavez underwent a first round of chemotherapy. He has not revealed exactly what kind of cancer he has, although speculation focuses on colon cancer.

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Chavez gives Cuba thousands of barrels of heavily subsidized oil as well as other benefits. Many see that continued backing as key to sustaining economic reform, measures of which were approved by the ruling Communist Party in an extraordinary congress in April, during which the steps were pronounced as necessary to “salvage socialism.”

wilkinson@latimes.com


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