Castro’s reforms “are useful and positive and I would applaud them, but in terms of reversing the situation in industry they are not going to go too far,” said Ritter. “The industrial sector is a disaster. Cuba is de-industrializing.”
Castro also improved daily life by halting the massive political marches and rallies that brother Fidel so loved, Espinosa Chepe added, and diversifying the programs on the state television monopoly — “though they remain boring and with a heavy political bias.”
But virtually every young Cuban still has “a plan or an illusion” to escape the island, said Michel Matos, executive director of the Rotilla Festival, a privately organized music fest held annually from 1998 until the government banned it in 2011.
Some Cubans paint a dark picture of their future, with more poverty, especially among retirees whose benefits seldom rise above $15 a month. The gap between haves and have-nots has risen as the government has cut back spending on public health and education. Crime and prices continue to rise.
A woman who visits Havana often said a well-off and pro-Castro friend there recently told her that “there is a tension you feel all the time, like it’s going to explode. We don’t know where we’re going.” The woman asked for anonymity to speak frankly.
The specter of Fidel
Castro’s half-measures and stop-and-go reforms have sparked speculation on exactly who or what is standing in his way. The “who” is presumed to be the 86-year-old Fidel, always a sworn enemy of capitalism.
“In general I believe that we have a duty to update and improve it [Cuba’s Soviet-style economic model], but this is a stage where it is essential that we march very carefully. We should not make mistakes,” Fidel said earlier this month when asked about the reforms.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former government analyst on intelligence issues and Cuba-U.S. relations now at the University of Denver, said Raúl Castro is “losing time” with the slow pace of reforms “not because of indolence but because there is no agreed-upon vision of the system toward which Cuba is moving.”
The “what” is widely believed to be an entrenched bureaucracy that fears the reforms will take away its benefits and perquisites. Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University expert on Cuba, has described what Castro now faces as a tough “bureaucratic insurgency.”
Impediment to talks
As for U.S. relations, Castro has repeatedly offered talks with the Obama administration, yet held on to the one clear impediment to improved relations: U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, serving a 15-year sentence in Havana for giving sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jews in violation of Cuban laws.
“The government needs a less confrontational scenario in bilateral relations, but its survival is not dependent on a deal with the U.S.,” said Lopez-Levy. “The optimum scenario for [Castro] is not a sudden lifting of the embargo but a piecemeal dismantling.”
And on the human rights front, Castro freed 52 political prisoners jailed since a 2003 crackdown on dissent but at the same time stepped up repression, with a record 6,200 short-term detentions for political motives reported last year alone.
One bit of certainty
Castro is certain to be elected to a second five-year term as president of the Councils of Ministers and State when the parliamentary National Assembly of People’s Power opens its new session on Sunday. But the country’s future is less certain.
Lopez-Levy said he believes that during his first five years in power Castro carefully laid the institutional foundation for a more mixed state-private economy and a state withdrawal from daily life.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose subsidies to Cuba are pegged at more than $6 billion a year — higher than the aid that Moscow once provided — has cancer and it’s not clear whether a successor would keep the same level of aid.
Havana blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote last month that given Cuba’s myriad and profound problems, it’s difficult for her to believe that the system can “survive the new year, never mind guarantee its long-term viability.”
“But it merits mentioning that the Havana regime has been showing its ability to overcome, including even the most unfavorable predictions, for a long time,” she added. “After all, the Cuban economy has been in a permanent state of crisis for 20 years.”
“It will be much more likely to see our frustrations in the lines outside embassies [in Havana] waiting for a visa,” Sánchez noted, “than in any mass protests.”