HAVANA — This summer, it seems like every few days there’s a Cuba-related headline in the news.
Revolutionary leader and longtime president Fidel Castro is releasing a book about his youth.
His brother, President Raul Castro, is releasing political prisoners to Spain, an agreement brokered by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
He’s also cutting down the size of government, laying off up to a million workers and encouraging them to go into business for themselves.
Raul is also scrapping subsidized food programs, canceling free worker cafeterias and letting barbers and beauticians take over their own shops. All these moves limit the total control exerted by the regime over the dysfunctional communist economy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering loosening restrictions on selling food to Cuba and lifting the longtime ban on travel. The House Agriculture Committee approved these changes in early July. Now the proposals move to the Foreign Relations and Financial Services Committees. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is aggressively supporting the lifting of the decades-long U.S. economic embargo.
The Obama administration has already made it easier to travel to Cuba if you have family there, easier to transfer money — removing a $300/year cap on remittances — and has lifted limits on the telecommunications sector.
At the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, an official explains that more Cubans are being given visas to enter the U.S. legally. Last year, for the first time, all 20,000 slots allocated for Cubans to migrate to the U.S. were filled: “We have a big staff working on these cases — to help people get out,” she said.
Spain has eased the criteria for granting citizenship, and more Cubans are leaving through Spain as well.
Meanwhile, in the streets, there’s a palpable desire for change. “Everyone, everyone, wants to get out,” sighs a student at the University of Havana. “The only questions are how … and when.”
A doctor driving a cab on the side explained to his foreign passengers, “Most people make less than $20 a month. No one can live on this. They supposedly give us monthly food rations, but the food is gone in less than a week. And the quality is terrible. Have you seen a state market? It’s a joke. We’ve had it with this place!”
Cardinal Ortega conveyed his most forceful indictment of the status quo in Cuba in April through the Church’s monthly publication Palabra Nueva (New Word). He described Cuba as having “economic and social difficulties” that require the government to make “necessary changes quickly.”
The cardinal warned, “I think this feeling has become a form of national consensus, and its delay is producing impatience and unease among the people.”
Based on his role in gaining the release of democracy activists, the cardinal is poised to help give Christian character to this imminent change.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.