As a result, Cuba today teeters somewhere between the promise and realities of the reforms, between his on-the-mark diagnoses of what ails the country and a shortage of the appropriately strong medicine.
Castro has thrown the doors open to more private enterprise but still limits licenses to 181 strictly defined jobs — among them, party clown — slapped steep taxes on them and vowed that central planning will remain the guiding force of the economy.
The decree allowing non-agricultural cooperatives — state-owned restaurants can become employee coops, for instance — is positive, said Ritter. But it requires the coops to accept as full members all employees of more than 90 days, such as a receptionist.
In one of the most critical reforms, Castro decreed in 2008 that nearly five million acres of idle state farmlands would be leased to private farmers to increase agricultural production and cut a food import bill estimated at $1.5 billion a year.
But only 3.7 million acres had been handed out at the end of 2012 and the government retained Acopio, the notoriously bumbling state system for gathering and distributing farm products. That’s what Castro attacked in that first major speech, in 2007, when he detailed the incompetent system for producing, processing and distributing milk.
It also took the government four years to reverse a section in the decree that banned the new farmers from building homes on the land — in effect forcing them to commute and leave their farm animals and machinery exposed to thieves every night.
Perhaps that’s why domestic food production dropped in 2011 to pre-2007 levels, and dropped again in 2012, with pork, a staple of the Cuban diet, down by 18.3 percent. Agricultural food prices spiked by about 20 percent while salaries barely ticked up, and food imports remained stable.
Cuban officials also announced 500,000 state employees would be dismissed by April 2011, and 800,000 more would follow by the end of that year in order to slash government spending. Yet by the end of 2012 the total layoffs reportedly stood at only 365,000.
Castro ordered an all-out attack on corruption, and put his son, Alejandro, in charge of the campaign. Yet bribery appears to be booming in the dark spaces between socialist and capitalist economic activities, and reports of fresh scandals filter out almost every week.
He has repeatedly called for a younger leadership and promoted Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 54, to the Politburo of the Communist Party and Higher Education Minister Miguel Diaz-Canel, about 52, to vice president of the Council of Ministers.
But Cuba’s leadership remains ancient. Castro is 81, Machado Ventura is 82 and Ramiro Valdes, another vice president of the Council of Ministers and sometimes considered No. 3, is 80. Overall, 10 of the 15 politburo members are in their 70s and 80s.
He has demanded that all state-owned enterprises improve their management and threatened to shutter those that do not turn a profit. Yet the General Comptroller’s report for 2012 said 34 percent of the 234 estate entities audited fell short of their goals.
Ritter noted that industrial output in 2011 stood at a shocking 47 percent of the levels in 1989, when post-communist Moscow halted its subsidies to Havana and the island plunged into economic ruin. The purchasing power of salaries in 2010 was 30 percent lower than in 1989, according to Espinosa Chepe.