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John Hughes: Cuba talks reform talk, walks old communist walk

Published: Friday, June 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

When Fidel Castro first seized power more than 50 years ago, he got rid of Cuba's golf courses. Now tip-toeing toward some modest reforms, the government is giving preliminary approval for four luxury golf resorts.

The problem is that there is no suggestion of any change in the harsh governing political regime. Nor do Cuba's attempts to jump-start a stagnant economy look anywhere near as innovative as China's, whose example of running a market economy under a communist political system Cuba has been studying.

The April Cuban Communist Party Congress, the first in 14 years, had been awaited with anticipation after hints by President Castro of change to come. But hopes of a leadership shakeup and the appointment of a younger and more vigorous team that would reinvigorate the system were dashed.

Raul succeeded his brother Fidel, who has been inactive because of illness, as top party official. Instead of choosing a young new successor-designate, the second highest party slot went to an 80-year-old communist place-holder, Jose Ramon Machado. Although Raul bemoaned the absence of replacements with "sufficient experience and maturity," ambitious younger candidates have in fact been discouraged or sidelined. The aim seems to be to retain the political system in place, offering some economic improvements to a disillusioned populace in the guise of "updating the socialist model." As one Cuban exile, who formerly held senior positions in the early years of Fidel Castro's ascendancy, put it: "Raul is more of a communist than Fidel."

Raul Castro has freed some political prisoners. He has talked of two five-year term limits for himself and other politicians. He has announced, but postponed, plans to lay off half a million government workers. He has encouraged the emergence of small businesses instead of massive government employment. He has suggested curbing government handouts like the monthly food ration books. But the state, backed by a powerful military whose generals are embedded throughout its infrastructure, remains paramount.

Where does this leave Cuba's relations with the United States? Not coincidentally, the date for the party congress coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, the abortive U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro regime.

Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently had a memorable interview in Havana with Fidel Castro, puts it this way: The Cuban message is: "just because we're changing doesn't mean that we're casting off our nationalism and our revolutionary ethos. Economic reform does not mean a concession to the United States."

The Obama administration has lifted travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans as well restrictions on Cuban-Americans sending money to relatives in Cuba. American educational and religious institutions can also now send their representatives to Cuba.

The White House has also moved to encourage more cultural and economic exchanges with Cuba, lessening the emphasis on regime change in Havana.

The U.S. government's radio and TV broadcasting to Cuba has been consistently jammed by the Cuban regime over the years. Radio Marti and TV-Marti have used various means to provide alternative news and information to Cubans subjected to propaganda from their own heavily government-controlled Cuban media.

Critics, including the U.S. government's own watchdog agency, have faulted the Marti operations, and their cost, for their inability to reach a substantial Cuban audience. Recently the radio and TV broadcasts were re-formatted to make them more relevant and to reach a younger audience.

One complicating factor in U.S.-Cuban relationship has been Cuba's 15 years' imprisonment of American Alan Gross. Mr Gross went to Cuba as the employee of a U.S. company under contract to U.S. Agency for International Development, was kept under surveillance by Cuban intelligence agents and arrested late in 2009.

For the moment the relationship is quiescent. The closeness to the US of a communist country with a restless population and a dictatorial regime of uncertain future needs watching.

John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.

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