For Mariela Castro, interviewed recently in Italy, Cuba is “a country in revolution, in constant change.” The daughter of Cuba’s former president and head of the National Institute for Sex Education added, “Space exists to discuss and make proposals within the framework of socialism.”

Changes have been coming, notes one observer, at “what amounts to lightning speed by Cuban standards.”

In two major speeches, one on July 26, 2007, the other in late February, President Raul Castro called for reforming food production, increasing wages, getting rid of “excessive prohibitions” and instituting structural economic change. In the intervening months, Cubans responded massively to his invitation to debate and propose.

With food production dropping, 80 percent of the basic foods Cubans consume are imported at a yearly cost of over $1.6 billion. Half the country’s productive land is underused or idle, while half its food production comes from 20 percent of the arable land.

New guidelines have transferred agricultural decision-making from ministries to local agencies. Prices paid farmers have increased, with dairy and meat prices doubling. Private landowners, already accounting for half of Cuba’s domestic food production, now benefit along with cooperatives from expanded credit, settling of debts, free fertilizers and animal feed, and free choice as to crops.

They are now allowed to sell directly to local consumers, hospitals and schools, and to buy equipment and supplies directly from state stores. And importantly, private farmers and cooperatives now have the green light to expand operations onto unused state-owned land, in what one official described as a “massive distribution of land.”

“This is just the beginning,” declared one economist, adding that “Decentralization and more individual initiative will slowly spread from agriculture to the entire economy, it’s inevitable, [and] this would strengthen, not weaken the Communist Party and state.”

Other innovations are directed ultimately at wage increases. The background is that the convertible Cuban peso (CUC) is worth 24 times more than the Cuban peso. The former, exchangeable for foreign currency, is prized as the means for purchasing relatively expensive consumer items. But most domestic transactions are carried out using pesos. Unused Cuban pesos have accumulated in savings banks to the extent of $1.1 billion. The intention is to draw the pesos back into the economy by encouraging Cubans to convert pesos into CUCs. They are then encouraged to spend CUCs on goods and services newly made available for that purpose.

In state hands, both pesos and CUCs will be used to fund projects giving rise to jobs and production. Further, as currency moves from private hands to the state, the Cuban peso will supposedly gain in value, in effect making for wage increases.

Some 60 percent of Cubans have access to convertible pesos, with ten percent of Cubans holding the great majority of them and farmers accounting for a sizable portion.

Rules have been relaxed. DVDs, flat televisions, microwaves, electronic appliances, electric bicycles, cell phones and computers are now available to all who can pay. Past restrictions on renting automobiles and using tourist hotels and restaurants are ended.

Non-economic changes are also in the works. Cuban television will be introducing a new channel presenting foreign material including films and news analyses. Under Mariela Castro’s leadership — and building on the espousal of diversity awareness by her mother, Vilma Espin — Cuba’s National Assembly will soon pass legislation recognizing same-sex unions, inheritance rights of gay people and the right of transsexual people to obtain free sex-change operations.

Cuba has eased transportation complaints, putting hundreds of new buses from China in service with hundreds more to be added this year. Authorities have announced plans for new telecommunications services in underserved areas as well as construction of a major water supply and distribution system affecting nine provinces.

Complaints and suggestions emanating from the just completed four-day congress of the National Association of Cuban Artists and Writers testify to flourishing debate and discussion. For example, author Graziella Pogolotti, the association’s president, stressed the need to recover the lead role of the teacher in Cuba’s educational system. Author Marilyn Bobes noted that “On television there is still an excess of frivolity, boredom that confuses relaxation with banality and education with didactics.”

atwhit@ roadrunner.com

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