July 26, 2008 / 1:34 PM / 11 years ago

Cubans anticipate news on reforms in Castro speech

HAVANA (Reuters) - President Raul Castro will mark the 55th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution on Saturday with a speech to a nation waiting to hear how far and how fast he plans to go in reforming the island’s struggling state-run economy.

A boy walks past grafitti in Santiago de Cuba July 25, 2008. President Raul Castro returns to the birthplace of the Cuban revolution this week for a speech that will be watched for news on what some consider another, quieter revolution now taking place on the socialist island. Castro's speech, to be given in the eastern city of Santiago on Saturday, will mark the 55th anniversary of the July 26, 1953 rebel assault which Fidel Castro led on the nearby Moncada army barracks. The graffiti reads, "Neighborhood for neighborhood, revolution". REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Since taking over from ailing older brother Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, 77, has pushed through reforms large and small that have raised expectations for improvement in one of the world’s last communist states.

Cubans, hungry for more, have speculated he could announce anything from immigration reform making it easier to travel to changes that would allow them to more freely buy and sell cars and homes.

Most of the speculation is based on Castro’s promise earlier this year to remove “excessive prohibitions” in Cuban life.

Castro will speak at 7 p.m. local time (2300 GMT) in the eastern city of Santiago where he took part in a July 26, 1953 assault on the Moncada army barracks by young rebels led by Fidel Castro.

Militarily, the attack was a fiasco, with many of the poorly-equipped rebels killed, but it began an armed insurrection against U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista that ended with Fidel Castro taking power in 1959.

Raul Castro formally became president in a February vote by the National Assembly, but he had ruled provisionally since late July 2006 when Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery from which he has not fully recovered.

The older Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since his July 26, 2006 speech, which is considered the year’s most important address for a Cuban leader.


Raul Castro began his presidency with a flurry of small, but symbolic changes that included allowing Cubans to buy cell phones and computers and go to tourist facilities previously reserved for foreigners.

Trying to combat rising import costs, he has undertaken broader reforms in agriculture to increase food output by allowing private farmers and cooperatives — more productive than state-run operations — to cultivate more land.

He also has taken steps to boost productivity by lifting wage limits so that better workers can make more money.

Cubans receive state-subsidized health care, education, housing and food, but the average worker earns less than $20 a month, so grumbling about money is widespread.

In last year’s July 26th speech, Castro pleased Cubans by acknowledging that wages were too low and promising economic reforms.

But the biggest changes so far have been in agriculture as Castro has moved at a deliberate pace that some blame on the continued presence of Fidel Castro, who is viewed as more of a communist ideologue than his brother.

The older Castro writes columns, meets with visiting leaders and continues to be consulted about speeches and decisions, Raul Castro has said.

Cuba experts have said they do not expect major policy announcements from Raul Castro, who on July 11 told the National Assembly that a slowing world economy could delay wage increases. He also said Cuba needed to raise its retirement age and start collecting more taxes.

“My sense is that Raul has used these important speeches to establish benchposts for his plans to revitalize the Cuban economy while being careful to keep public expectations in check,” said Dan Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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“Thus he is likely to continue focusing on step-by-step measures for boosting Cuba’s productive capacity without embracing more radical reforms,” he said.

Castro’s early reforms spurred hope among Cubans that change would come rapidly after 49 years under his older brother. But now reality is setting in that change will come slowly, said 72-year-old Carmen, who did not want to give her full name.

“There’s crisis in the world and we’ve had disorder for many years. We’re going to improve, but it’s slow,” she said. “I tell my grandchildren I’m not going to see it, but they will.”

Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Vicki Allen

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