HAVANA (Reuters) - Change is a word that can still get you into trouble in communist Cuba, yet it is on everyone’s lips these days.
As the nation debates a future without ailing leader Fidel Castro, expectations are rising that change will come, at least in the way the one-party state runs the economic life of its 11 million people.
But 15 months after the 81-year-old Castro fell ill and his brother Raul became acting president, few policy changes have been made and Cubans are wondering when they will come.
In meetings held over the last two months in neighborhoods, work places and Communist Party cells, Cubans criticized the shortcomings of the socialist system born from Castro’s 1959 revolution, venting their frustration with 16 years of hardships since the Soviet Union collapsed.
People stood up to complain about low wages, high food prices, poor housing, restrictions on travel and, above all, a two-tiered monetary system that limits access to consumer goods to those Cubans with hard currency.
“We want deeds, not words. Before we had money and there was nothing to buy. Now the shops are full, but we have no money,” said a Havana housewife who did not give her name.
Raul Castro, who is considered more open to market reforms than his brother, has encouraged media exposes of glaring faults in the 90-percent state-owned economy. His call also paved the way for the nationwide process of public meetings.
In a July 26 speech this year, the younger Castro, 76, said “structural changes” were needed in agriculture to kick-start Cuba’s deficient food production.
Yet in recent weeks at least 20 youths wearing wristbands with the word “CAMBIO” —meaning political change— were detained by police for several hours and reprimanded for wearing “counter-revolutionary” propaganda allegedly supplied by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.
“Cubans want a change of mentality, because this system doesn’t work anymore,” said Luis Miguel, a state employee who hitched a ride on Havana’s Malecon sea boulevard.
“No one owns anything, so they don’t look after anything and steal from the state to get by,” he said. “Things must change, everyone said the same at the meeting.”
“They have to do something now that they have heard people speak their minds,” said Jose, a travel agency manager who did not want to be fully named for fear of losing his job.
Like many Cubans, both men agreed that a bureaucratic state should not be running small businesses, from restaurants and bars to shoe-shines and barber shops.
Cuban officials say they are processing thousands of reports on proposals made at the meetings between August and October, and decisions will be taken in due course.
Economists expect the thrust of reform will be to expand the role of private farmer cooperatives to raise production and reduce reliance on imported food, including purchases from Cuba’s ideological arch-enemy, the United States.
Under Raul Castro, arrears have been paid to farmers and prices trebled for their milk and meat, boosting output.
Inhabitants of Cienfuegos, 160 miles southwest of Havana, were startled last month to receive half a pound (227 grams) of beef per person in their monthly ration for the first time since Cuba’s post-Soviet crisis began in 1991.
“We were so happy, because it showed we are recovering from the big crisis,” said teacher Yairma Perez. Beef rations have long been restricted to children, the elderly and ill people.
Devastating floods in eastern Cuba following Tropical Storm Noel two weeks ago set back farming and should lead the government to speed up policy changes, according to dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who said Cuba must hand out vast tracts of unused land to private farmers.
Chepe does not, however, expect political changes in the near future, since the state can easily repress discontent.
Speculation about the future of Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public since intestinal surgery last year, has centered on the first session of the National Assembly next March, which could announce his retirement.
A European businessman in Havana said that was not likely.
“They will keep Fidel Castro as the formal head of state as long as possible, because when he is gone the pressure for changes will build up faster,” he said.