Cuban agriculture
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Cuba Transition Project

Former New York mayor Ed Koch was fond of hovering at busy subway
station entrances and startling commuters by asking, with a big smile
and a handshake, "How am I doing?" There is no Cuban equivalent of
course, not even remotely so, yet in his own diffident way
must be wondering how his "provisional" administration has done.

Fair to say, the record of his interregnum is mixed. Nothing truly
transformational has occurred, and may never as long as this innately
cautious career military officer is in charge. He may ultimately decide
against any real economic decentralization, fearing it could ignite
instability. Most of his brother's calamitous legacies may be just too
difficult for him to repudiate. And perhaps, even now as the need to
decide is urgently upon him, Raul may not be able to assure that Fidel
vacates the Cuban presidency. That will be the most critical test of how
Raul is doing.

He is likely under considerable pressure to finalize the transfer of
power soon. It has been eighteen months since Fidel has been out of
sight, and increasingly too, out of mind. A particularly insightful
Cuban recently observed that the populace has moved on beyond Fidel,
without fear or cognizance of him, and with an abiding sense of relief
that he is no longer able to impose on them. This person observed that
"Fidel has been forgotten as absolutely by the Cuban people as all of
those boring Russian movies they had no choice but to watch for so many

It's not clear to what extent Raul has taken a lead in engineering
Fidel's evanescence. But he is nonetheless its principal beneficiary and
it may actually be his most important accomplishment thus far. He has in
other ways too begun to stimulate and lift the popular mood on the
island, even if he can claim no credit yet for providing significant
improvements in the mostly miserable lot of the Cuban people.

Yet, anecdotal accounts suggest they have a better image of Raul now
than in the past. To their relief he has delivered only a few speeches
since taking over, and, unlike Fidel's interminable and desultory
oratory, when Raul speaks, he is succinct, precise, and on subject. He
mostly avoids the front pages of Cuba's newspapers, is known to delegate
and share power, and has made sure to convey the image of himself as a
family man. He has communicated through the leadership ranks that he
prefers to work a normal day and does not want to be disturbed after
hours. Unlike his brother, he permits no self imagery of heroic
accomplishments or extraordinary personal capabilities.

He is not known to have traveled abroad since Fidel's confinement, and
has had neither the time nor interest in mounting mass demonstrations
against the United States. For Fidel, problems at home were always less
important than internationalist posturing, but Raul communicates the
impression of concentrating almost exclusively on domestic problem
solving. Notably, he has almost entirely ignored the non-aligned
movement that Cuba has led since September 2006. All of this is surely
calculated to contrast his personal and leadership styles with Fidel's
and to demonstrate that his priorities are more attuned to the real
needs of the populace.

Raul and those speaking for him have admitted that Cuba's many grave
problems are systemic. In their disarmingly truthful view, it is not the
American economic or "imperialism" that are the cause of all
problems on the island, as Fidel always insisted, but rather their own
mistakes and mindsets. In turn, Raul has called on Cubans, especially
the younger generation, to "debate fearlessly" and help devise solutions
for the failures. Brutally candid discussions at the grass roots level
have proliferated. Not long ago all this would have been considered
counter-revolutionary blasphemy.

There have been no reports of the death penalty being invoked, even in
the cases of young hoodlums guilty of killing a military officer.
Despite continuing brutal repression of the country's and
dissident groups, Raul has allowed some limited social decompression.
Intellectuals, artists, and previously oppressed homosexuals have been
given more space. Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper intended for Cuban
youth has been innovatively reconfigured, publishing investigative
stories that could never have been aired while Fidel was in charge. Even
the previously sacrosanct public health has come under critical
scrutiny in its pages.

Remarkably too, The Lives of Others, an Oscar winning film about the
amorality of communist East Germany's repressive secret services was
shown recently in . At least one independent and often irreverent
site intended for Cuba's disenchanted youth has been allowed to
function. Without fanfare, police in Havana have stopped ticketing
taxis and more buses are on the streets.

In a major address last July dedicated primarily to massive failures in
, Raul called for "structural and conceptual" change. Given
his past sympathetic references to the laws of supply and demand, his
advocacy of liberalizing economic reforms in the 1990s, and the many
for-profit enterprises his military officers have been encouraged to
run, he probably plans to introduce market incentives in the
countryside. Private farmers are being paid more by the government for
their produce and are receiving tracts of land so that crops will
be more available in markets. More dramatic innovations in agriculture
are likely to be announced this year.

With his own powerful base of support in the military he has run since
1959, the security services he has controlled since 1989, and the
communist party he manages, Raul has led from a position of undisputed
strength. He has no intention of opening or liberalizing the political
system or permitting a flowering of dissident activity. But as he
approaches his seventy-seventh birthday in June, he gives every
indication of wanting to leave a legacy of his own, one quite distinct
from that of his brother.

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February 2008
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