Changes Stir Cuba's Communist Conference

This weekend, Cuban President Raul Castro will preside over the island's Communist Party conference. The meeting comes a week after Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar died following a hunger strike. Host Scott Simon talks with reporter Nick Miroff about the ongoing economic restructuring in Cuba and the new ways the country has been dealing with dissidents.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Cuba's President Raul Castro is presiding over this weekend's first national conference of the Cuban Communist Party. The Communists are the only legal political party in Cuba, and they don't have any party primary debates. Raul Castro isn't expected to announce any new social reforms at the gathering, though he has introduced a few economic initiatives after taking over from his brother, Fidel, in 2006. The conference comes a little more than a week after Wilmar Villar Mendoza, a political dissident, died 56 days into a hunger strike. He is the second political prisoner to die on hunger strike in the last two years there. We're joined by reporter Nick Miroff in Havana. Nick, thanks very much for being with us.

NICK MIROFF: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Nick, amid all the talk of some of the tinkering Raul Castro has been doing, certain economic initiatives in the Cuban economy, has there been any perceptible change in the policy or practices on the human rights issue?

MIROFF: Well, I wouldn't say that the situation has gotten worse or better under Raul Castro. It's different in some ways. Opposition activists here say that the government's relying more on short-term detentions rather than, you know, longer imprisonments. In December, they tallied more than 700 short-term detentions and incidents of harassment. On the other hand, Cuba has released a large number of political prisoners. Raul Castro just pardoned nearly 3,000 prisoners in advance of Pope Benedict XVI's visit in March. And thanks to the interventions of, really of the Catholic Church in 2010, all of the Cuban inmates who were considered prisoners of conscious by Amnesty International were released. So, there are some new prisoners now, but again, the main tactic and shift seems to be toward short-term detentions.

SIMON: How would you recognize some of the economic changes, changes in the economic system in everyday life?

MIROFF: Well, you can see them in the streets. There are small businesses opening up all over Havana, people putting out signs for little cafeterias, restaurants, repair shops. You know, the government is moving forward very cautiously and in a very incremental way, but it's certainly moving forward. And you do see a new kind of entrepreneurial energy on the streets among Cubans who finally feel like they have a chance to, you know, maybe keep the fruits of their labor a little more. And that's also in some ways stimulated investment from Cubans abroad, in Miami and elsewhere, who are sending money back to help their family members start businesses, or try to invest here, whether it's in a business or in real estate now that Cubans can finally buy and sell their homes.

SIMON: And how do you assess the strength of the political opposition in Cuba?

MIROFF: You know, the political opposition here is virtually unknown to most Cubans. It's small, it's fragmented but, you know, that's also because the government and the state control the media. And so the opposition here has always struggled, both to get their message out to be credible among the Cuban population and, you know, in the face of the obstacles and the harassment they have to confront. So, in some ways, I guess I'd say it's kind of as weak as ever and not a serious threat to the civility of the government or a credible force in, you know, in Cuban political change.

SIMON: Reporter Nick Miroff speaking with us from Havana.

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