September 17 , 2007

Cuba Perks Show a Post-Fidel Touch

By Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer.

Interim Ruler Raul Castro Takes Small Steps to Improve Cubans' Lives, but Are They Enough?

HAVANA, 14 sep (AP) -- With Raul Castro in charge, Cuba has raised payments to milk and meat producers, is paying off its debts to farmers and has stopped blocking the import of parts needed to keep vintage cars rumbling along.

Travelers can even bring in DVD players and game consoles, highly coveted by Cubans starved for high-tech entertainment.

Raul's ailing brother Fidel is still showing leadership behind the scenes, and as provisional president, he has only taken small steps. But he's already giving clues to how he might govern once he takes full control -- paying special attention to quality-of-life problems, publicly scolding state managers and bluntly acknowledging that salaries don't cover basic needs.

The new Chinese buses on intercity routes are evidence of the Raul effect. They were in the planning before Fidel got sick, but they have become much more visible since Raul gave a speech late last year saying he was sick of hearing bureaucrats' excuses and wanted results.

To boost food production, lawmakers agreed in June to pay producers 2 1/2 times more for milk and meat included in the island's heavily subsidized ration program and in meals provided at similarly low-cost workplace cafeterias, schools, hospitals and community centers. The prices consumers pay will remain the same.

At the same gathering National Assembly members were told that the state had just paid off debts worth $23 million to the small farmers and cooperatives that grow two-thirds of the island's fruits and vegetables, and renegotiated $35 million in other debts.

The change is evident in style too. Where a Fidel speech could devote hours to communist, his brother's oratory is much more short and direct, and Cubans love his public attacks on government failures.

But 76-year-old Raul is only a caretaker president, and officials insist that 81-year-old Fidel will be back. And as long as Fidel is alive, no one thinks Raul will dare to make big moves that could annoy the older brother he has loved and admired since they were boys.

Thomas Fingar, the U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence, told the U.S. Congress in June that while the Cuban public has high expectations of improvement, "Significant, positive political change is unlikely immediately."

As caretaker president, Raul has "very limited running room," said Cuba analyst Phil Peters, of the pro-democracy Lexington Institute think tank outside Washington. "He seems to be looking for small practical things that can make Cubans' lives easier."

Cuban exiles in Miami are consumed with rumors that Fidel is dying or dead. But Cubans on the island rarely mention him nowadays -- they're already more focused on what Raul, Fidel's constitutionally designated successor, will do.

They were pleased to hear him confirm on television that state salaries fail to cover basic necessities, and some even cheered when Raul delivered a slap at inefficient state managers by commenting sardonically about government farms infested with a fast-growing, thorny bush called marabu.

They nodded knowingly as Raul publicly questioned why all Cubans aren't guaranteed milk in their monthly food rations, not just children under 7. They also noticed that the milk comment was dropped from the official transcript of the televised speech.

On a personal level, Cubans were moved to see Raul appearing to choke back a sob after kissing an urn containing his wife's ashes at her state-televised funeral in June. The cameras also showed a vault next to Espin's that already bears Raul's name -- an unusual acknowledgment of a Cuban leader's mortality in a country where talk of Fidel's death has always been taboo.

Cubans have never had such a personal glimpse of Fidel, who does not appear in public with his family, and they don't know where or how his funeral will take place.

Authorities insist the brothers are united, and bristle at suggestions Raul is more open to change than his brother. They note that Fidel also hinted at reforms in November 2005, when he acknowledged that if government corruption and inefficiency are not controlled, "this revolution can destroy itself."

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote in an essay e-mailed to international media that he suspects government hard-liners are worrying that possible changes could undermine their legitimacy. He also noted that just five days after Raul said he would be open to discussing improved relations with a new U.S. president, Fidel wrote that the United States -- "the empire" -- would never negotiate with Cuba.

In the past, Raul expressed interest in China's model of a market economy in a one-party state. But Vice President Carlos Lage says Cuba won't copy that model.

"The countries now working to build socialism in different parts of the world," Lage said, "are doing so in situations very different politically and economically from ours."

Thompson: Clinton made issue of remark

By Brendan Farrington, Associated Press Writer, September 14, 2007.

MIAMI - Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson blamed Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday for the publicity surrounding his remark suggesting Cuban immigrants are bringing suitcase bombs to the United States.

When asked by Florida's WTVJ about the perception in the Cuban-American community about his comments, Thompson replied, "I think that was a Hillary Clinton news release that she put out or a statement that she made trying to capitalize on something when she knew better."

During a trip to South Carolina in June, Thompson was talking about illegal immigration from Cuba and elsewhere and said, "I don't imagine they're coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb."

A day later, he posted an explanation on his Web site, saying he was referring to Cuban spies, not immigrants. Nevertheless, Democrats, including Clinton, assailed him for not understanding Cuban-Americans.

The Clinton campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, Thompson said, "Castro is a state sponsor of terrorism. Our own State Department has said that. Any state sponsor of terrorism should not be allowed to send people across the Mexican border into our country illegally. It's just that simple."

Earlier, Radio Mambi programming director Armando Perez-Roura told Thompson that candidates come to Miami's Little Havana, drink Cuban coffee at the Versailles restaurant and declare their support for a free Cuba. Yet little has changed in Cuba under President Fidel Castro. He asked how Thompson can show he'll do more than just provide rhetoric.

Thompson replied that he was a friend of Cuban-Americans during his eight years as a Tennessee senator and visited the region.

"I understand the price that you have paid. I know your leaders. One of the things that I would do is stay in close contact with your leaders and especially those in Florida," Thompson said. "The first thing that any president would have to do is recognize the reality. And in this case it's the reality of the fact that Castro is a dictator and he suppresses his own people."

But he offered no specifics on how he would change Cuban policy. Then he left the studio, went to Versailles, posed with a cup of Cuban coffee for television cameras and promised during a 20-minute speech to maintain the Cuban embargo.

The former "Law & Order" actor also said he would increase radio and television broadcasts to the communist island and try to educate the rest of the world about Castro.

Thompson also reaffirmed his pro-gun rights stance when asked about a man who used an AK-47 assault rifle to shoot four Miami-Dade County police officers Thursday, killing one. He said an assault weapon ban isn't the answer.

"We'll never be able to keep people like that from getting their hands on weapons and it does not result in a good thing to disarm law abiding Americans," Thompson said.

At a later stop, Thompson addressed more than 500 people in Cape Coral, a southwest Florida city on the Gulf of Mexico. He talked about the need for energy independence, and after the speech said he would consider oil drilling in the eastern Gulf as long as it was environmental safe and was respectful of people in the region.

"We've got to use all the resources that are available to us," he said.

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