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Cuba's challenge: Open up economy, but stay communist

Cuba's Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, left, is applauded by Fidel Castro after being elected as secretary of Cuba's Communist Party in Havana, April 19, 2011.

Javier Galeano/AP/Javier Galeano/AP

Cuba's leaders debated the document for days at this week's historic congress in Havana.

Its pages contain 311 modifications to a law designed to chart a course away from the economic stagnation in which the communist country is mired and resuscitate its moribund revolution.

The paper, however, has not been made public.

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And even though it has been touted as the solution to their country's economic woes, most Cubans caught only a passing glimpse of it on their evening newscast, which supplied a brief summary of what their country's leaders had decided about their future.

The lack of transparency is just one sign, analysts say, that despite Cuba appointing new leaders to the Communist Party and taking half-measures toward privatization, reality will essentially remain unchanged for average Cubans.

"I would characterize the changes to law as really timid ways of reforming and they face a whole series of hurdles," said Christopher Sabatina, a Cuba scholar who edits Americas Quarterly, and who saw an early draft of the changes to law.

He characterized them as "not radical neo-liberal reforms by any stretch" but rather "efforts to renew the socialist system by injecting market incentives into it."

Some of the proposals meant to resurrect Cuba's economy are already in play.

Cubans have applied for more than 170,000 licences for new businesses such as taxis, restaurants and flower stalls - small enterprises now permitted under Communist rule.

Also on the table now are measures that are said to include the buying and selling of private property, the eventual elimination of a ration book which provides Cubans with basic, subsidized food necessities and an end to the country's dual currency system.

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Cuban leaders emphasized the changes did not stray from the principles of communism.

"The economic policy [approved here]follows the principle that only socialism can preserve the victories of the revolution," Marino Murillo, a former economy minister who has been charged with implementing the reforms, told The Associated Press.

Cuba's ambassador to Canada described the changes as improvements to the revolution.

"They are necessary changes to improve the system," Teresita Vicente told The Globe And Mail. She said the changes were the results of "looking for more efficiency in a very complex international economic situation."

Analysts meanwhile say Cuba's efforts to liberalize its economy to generate badly needed jobs and capital will be stunted by a series of factors, most significantly, stale leadership that is set in its ways.

"The fate of these reforms depends on political will at the top which is lacking," Mr. Sabatina said.

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While Cuba laid the foundation for a new leader at its Communist Party Congress, it failed to replace the old guard of octogenarian revolutionaries embodied by the Castro brothers.

President Raul Castro selected Jose Ramon Machado, an 80-year-old former revolutionary fighter as his No. 2. Ramiro Valdes, a 78-year-old vice president, was named No. 3.

Fidel Castro, meanwhile, has relinquished all party and state posts for the first time in half a century. He maintains, however, an almost phantom-like presence across the country.

"I think I have received too many honours. I never thought I would live so many years. Raul knew that I would not accept at this time any position in the party," he wrote on a state website post published on Tuesday.

Still, he made an unannounced appearance at the congress, lending his symbolic power to the changes it set forth.

"He is not on the central committee of the party but the important thing is his historic leadership and his impact," Ms. Vicente said.

"I think the Cuban people are looking at him the same way as years ago. He is Cuba for us," she added.

Beyond the problems of out-of-date leadership, observers were skeptical that Cuba's nascent private sector would take root in a country where the biggest employer has long been the state.

Without access to large markets, or sufficient access to credit, economists predicted many of the new micro-enterprises would founder in Cuba's cash-strapped economy. The fate of a million public-sector workers expected to be laid off in the coming months was also unclear.

"Are these people suddenly supposed to become entrepreneurs? They are starting from zero, so that's a huge constraint," Mr. Sabatina said.

Still, the changes are expected to be voted into law by the national assembly in the coming weeks.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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