|July 26 marks one of the most important dates on the Cuban revolutionary calendar [EPA]|
It is an uncanny thing when you are in Cuba. With no cameras around, most Cubans on the street will speak freely about their frustrations and complaints after more than 50 years of socialist revolution. If the camera goes on, however, almost everyone demurs.
Rolando Crespo, however, does not. He is an archaeologist who works for the state restoration office. Crespo is married to a doctoral student in biology, and the two of them have been trying to build their own house for ten years.
Crespo spoke freely to Al Jazeera, in the middle of the street with our cameras rolling.
“I hope that our president is truly sensible and intelligent enough to realise that we need change inside Cuba,” he said.
“I ask the president with all of my heart that he think about this and that please, that he realise we are in a desperate situation.”
We met Crespo in a store filled with books about Fidel Castro and posters glorifying Cuba’s socialist revolution.
Crespo is proud of Cuban socialism and its accomplishments, but that does not mean he is not frustrated with the slow pace of reform.
While it is impossible to know for sure, it is likely that many or even most Cubans in Cuba feel the same way.
Raul Castro, the Cuban president, on a trip last week to three African countries, summed it up like this: in Cuba “we have an excess of needs, and an excess of problems”.
As an economic slump deepens on this island nation of 11 million people, the frustrations are growing.
It is in this climate that Raul Castro officiates the 56th anniversary of the July 26 celebrations marking one of the most important dates on the Cuban revolutionary calendar.
Last year was Raul Castro’s first July 26 as president. There were big expectations then that he would announce some kind of major economic or policy changes.
Instead, he warned Cubans of tough times ahead and urged everyone to buckle down.
This year there are little expectations for any kind of big announcement.
The July 26 celebrations mark the day Fidel Castro and his brother Raul led a small band of rebels in a raid on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city.
|Raul Castro will be celebrating his second July 26 as president [EPA]|
The attack failed – Fidel and Raul were arrested – but it is now commemorated as the day the Cuban revolution began.
Once out of prison the Castro brothers regrouped in Mexico with their cohorts, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Three years later they sailed back to Cuba in a yacht called the Granma and by January 1959 they had overthrown the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The Cuba that Fidel Castro took over in 1959 was a grossly unequal place, arguably in a near feudal state.
A small group of land-holding elite controlled most of the wealth. Illiteracy ran high, especially in rural areas, and health indicators were awful.
Correcting all of this via a socialist economic model was Fidel Castro’s goal.
In the ensuing decades, Castro’s governments did make huge strides.
Cuba’s literacy rates are among the highest in the world. Some health indicators surpass those in developed countries. And Cuba today is a much more egalitarian place than it ever was.
As significantly, Castro succeeded in consolidating what was already a strong strain of Cuban nationalism, dating back to the country’s independence struggle from Spain and US occupation at the beginning of the 20th century.
The fact that a small nation like Cuba was able to defy ten presidents of the huge US superpower, with the world’s strongest military just 90 miles (kilometers) away from its shores, helped to make Fidel Castro and Che Guevara folk heroes throughout Latin America and much of the rest of the world.
Fighting through adversity
However, the problems today are not few. Cuba’s economy strains under the burden of heavy centralisation. The average monthly salary is $20-30 and 80 per cent of the island’s food is imported.
If it were not for the generosity of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, with cheap oil and donated cash, it is not clear if Cuba’s economy would survive.
And economics aside, many political freedoms remain elusive. Most Cubans cannot get permission to leave the island.
Since Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006, people inside and outside Cuba have been waiting for some kind of change, while the regime’s enemies anxiously await its collapse.
Last year, after officially taking over the presidency, Raul Castro introduced some liberalisation measures.
Cubans are now free to buy imported TVs, computers and mobile phones and they can stay in hotels – something that was prohibited before.
But the economy is now reeling from a double-punch delivered last year – the effects of the broader world economic slowdown and a series of hurricanes that devastated parts of the island.
The government has had to slash its economic forecasts, accounting for severe contractions in imports and exports.
Cubans like Rolando Crespo say much more reform is now needed to fight through such adversity.
“I hope that for example those of us who don’t get remittance from abroad, we should be able to open small businesses,” he said.
“That is not going to hurt. It can only help. It will be good for the economy.”