HAVANA TIMES, July 26 (IPS) — The anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, commemorating Revolution Day, one of the most important dates on Cuba’s calendar, found the country caught up in speculation that Fidel Castro might appear on the platform, and raised fresh expectations about changes promised four years ago.
In the last few weeks the 83-year-old former president has been seen in public again, visiting several scientific and government institutions, and holding a meeting with Cuban ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry and an appearance on the Mesa Redonda (Round Table) television program.
But Fidel Castro did not appear in plaza Ernesto Guevara, in Santa Clara, 276 kilometers from Havana where the commemoration was held. The plaza is symbolic because the remains of legendary Argentine-Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara are buried there.
Cuban President Raul Castro presided at the rally, but unexpectedly failed to take the podium. The main speaker was Vice President José Ramón Machado.
“We don’t know what happened. We were left waiting for his (Raul Castro’s) speech,” a Cuban researcher who attended the rally told IPS over the telephone. The entire country was taken by surprise at the departure from tradition.
Machado said that tackling economic problems was the government’s priority but gave no details. “Savings, reduction of costs and the maximum rationing of energy and resources are our urgent needs in all areas,” he said.
He stressed that the government was analyzing the measures to be taken, but responsibly and step by step, in order to avoid mistakes. “We will never accept outside pressure,” the vice president added.
Chavez cancelled over Colombia tension
Among those invited to the ceremony was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who cancelled his visit at the last minute because of the diplomatic conflict with Colombia.
Since 2006, Fidel Castro has been convalescing from serious illness and has remained out of the public eye. He has continued to wield influence through his opinion columns, but has not commented on the complex economic situation faced by the country, focusing instead on international affairs, like the Middle East crisis and the risks of a possible military attack by the United States and Israel on Iran.
The official newspaper Granma has reserved space on its front page since June for quotations from past speeches by Fidel Castro, who is still First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), setting guidelines on matters that continue to be debated today.
Some of the extracts are tirades against middlemen who speculate with agricultural products; in others, he asks “how can you talk about quality of life if you work only four hours a day?” or stresses that “the first duty of a citizen is to work and produce,” while reminding people that the state “cannot give what it does not have.”
Many of the speeches quoted in Granma date from the 1960s, but others are more recent. Most of them address issues that have also been mentioned by Raul Castro, his younger brother, who succeeded him in office when he fell ill in July 2006.
Analysts see this as Granma’s way of “reassuring” orthodox elements about the direction of expected changes, even though Raul Castro himself has already stated he was elected “to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism, not to destroy it.”
This July 26 is the 57th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, an armed action led by Fidel Castro, then a young lawyer.
The attack, in which Raul also participated, was a military fiasco. But it was the first blow struck in the insurrection, which was eventually victorious in January 1959, against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Raul had ruled out short-term solutions
In July 2007, as interim president, Raul Castro spoke at the Jul. 26 rally and recognized the daily difficulties and shortages faced by Cubans. He ruled out short-term solutions and stated that production, especially of food, must be increased.
He stressed the need to make land more productive, spread the knowledge and experience of outstandingly productive small farmers, and properly reward their labors. “To reach these goals, necessary structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced,” he said.
His words were interpreted as a promise to institute rapid changes to straighten out the economy. So far, the president has made the country’s institutions his priority, and has made progress with adjustment programs to reduce government spending.
In terms of structural changes, under a decree-law in 2008, one million hectares of idle land has been leased to small farmers. Around half of this land is still not producing, or only very poorly, largely because of the farmers’ lack of resources.
Researchers in the field say the agricultural sector is the best demonstration that the central problem is production, and that it is essential to liberate productive forces and implement “systemic measures” to allow producers to feel they are in charge of their decisions and results.
Economists say that new measures must be adopted gradually, as the government has announced, but without “excessive caution.” Many people hoped that this Jul. 26 would usher in the long hoped-for changes to boost the economy, and are now looking forward to the ordinary sessions of parliament, beginning Aug. 1, for further pronouncements.
The government recently decided to free 52 imprisoned dissidents, after requests from the Catholic Church supported by the government of Spain. The last group of the first 20 prisoners and their families traveled to Madrid on Jul. 23.
The other dissidents will be freed at intervals over the next four months. According to dissident media outlets, several prisoners have turned down the option of going abroad, which is not apparently a condition of their release.