Dissidents freed as Raúl Castro signals change of tack in Cuba
· Dozens released as talk grows of Fidel's bad health
· Overtures to US as small reforms bid to improve life
Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent
Saturday August 25, 2007
Raúl Castro has started to make cautious changes in Cuba which could signal plans for political and economic reform.
Since he took over from his brother Fidel, dozens of dissidents have been released, an olive branch has been extended to Washington and there is talk of easing communist controls on property and agricultural production.
Three political prisoners have been freed in the past fortnight, the latest being Armando Betancourt Reina, a journalist jailed for 15 months after reporting on the eviction of a family in Camagüey.
Analysts said Raúl, 76, who has been acting president since illness forced his brother to step down last year, was experimenting with stealth reforms to improve living conditions and morale without eroding government control.
The defence minister has a reputation for hard-nosed pragmatism, in contrast to the more ideological Fidel, who at 81 embodies the 1959 revolution but no longer manages policy.
The changes could easily be reversed, but they signal a desire to ease the poverty and sense of claustrophobia which afflicts many Cubans, said a senior western diplomat. "There is a real effort to look at what doesn't work and to change it. Raúl wants to make life more bearable. The hope is that by addressing some specific complaints the system can continue."
The Venezuela president, Hugo Chávez, has shipped in 90,000 subsidised barrels of oil daily, easing an energy crisis and giving the government resources it has not seen since the height of Soviet subvention.
The dissidents who have been freed have slipped back to their homes with little or no official comment. Mr Betancourt, who worked for Miami-based website Nueva Prensa Cuba, was freed on Monday, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York.
Francisco Chaviano, a human rights activist, and Lázaro González Adán, a labour union activist, were also released this month. The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said more than a fifth of the island's 316 political prisoners had been freed in the past year.
Restrictions on free speech and opposition politics have not been lifted and the tiny group of dissidents has not become more outspoken. "Still in force is a police state whose nature is reflected in almost every aspect of national life," the human rights commission said in June.
However, some analysts say the acting president and his ministers are warily exploring new policies with a view to emulating Vietnam, where communists preside over market-driven prosperity, and avoiding the Soviet Union's unsuccessful perestroika.
Cuba's education and health systems, the pillars of the regime's legitimacy, remain intact, but severe shortages of food, transport and housing cause deep resentment which has reportedly shaken Raúl and other officials. In addition to pursuing better relations with the US, which were rebuffed by the Bush administration, Raúl has called for a national dialogue on corruption and inefficiency.
Controls on agricultural production have been loosened to give farmers more incentive to produce, and there is speculation that it will become legal to buy a car without government permission.
Officials have publicly fretted that young Cubans will be seduced by consumerism unless conditions improve.
Hundreds of buses are being imported from China to ease the queues and overcrowding which dog public transport, and a big overhaul of resorts is under way to try to win back tourists from Caribbean rivals.
Fidel, who has not been seen in public since surgery for an intestinal illness in July last year, is suspected of acting as a brake on some of the proposed changes.
There is speculation that his health has deteriorated. There were no photographs to mark his birthday on August 13, and his opinion columns have become fewer.
On a visit to Brazil this week, the foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, sought to dispel the rumours about Fidel's health. "Fidel is fine and is very disciplined about his recovery," he said.