Cubans Skeptical About Possibility of Change

Raul Castro has run Cuba since his brother Fidel Castro fell ill 14 months ago. Officials of the Cuban government believe a wave of change is necessary, including a more open economy.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Fidel Castro fell ill 14 months ago. He hasn't been seen in public since. Rumors of his death are constantly making the rounds of the Internet even though he was interviewed on Cuban state television only last week. Meanwhile, his brother, Raul, is in control. And officials with the Cuban government say there are real changes coming.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Havana. Good morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.

AMOS: First of all, what are people saying in Havana these days about Fidel and the change over?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, people seem not to be overly concerned about Fidel and the status of his health. They've moved on from that state of anxiety about what happens now. They now sort of know nothing really has changed essentially. Cubans are pretty practical people, and they are worried about the basics - how they get to work, how they get enough food to eat. Fidel is now pretty much out of public view, and the only regular contact they have with him is through his quote, "Reflections," as they're called here. These are the editorials that he writes now pretty regularly in the state-run papers. And they run the gamut of issues.

I'm looking at one in this week's issue of Granma, and there is a big headline that says "Reflections of the Commander in Chief: The Illegal Wars of the Empire." And it's - his reflections of the costs of the war - hardly new stuff. But his editorials are read on TV, and they're now going to be studied in school, they tell me. So he's still a presence here.

AMOS: His brother, Raul, has made quite a few statements about opening up the economy on the island, but have you seen any evidence of that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes and no, Deb. If you talk to Cubans on the street, you'll be told that their economic situation is still dire. There's a lack of food, of housing, of transportation. And there continues to be a little frustration with that. But, for example, over the past few weeks after a key speech that Raul gave, they're having these meetings in every workplace, and in them people are being encouraged to speak out frankly about the problems that they've been encountering.

I've spoken to a few people who've attended these meetings, and they've been pretty honest. People complain about corruption, about the lack of transparency in the system - key issues. The point, it seems, is to address these problems at the highest level. But it really remains to be seen whether this is just a cosmetic exercise in that a lot of people just simply vent or whether some fundamental changes in the way Cuba is run are going to start taking place.

AMOS: And can you tell that yet? Can you tell if the politics are changing on that island?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the politics aren't, and they won't. Raul is firmly in control; Fidel is still around. And the crackdown, for example, on dissidents continues. There were just arrests last week after a protest took place by a key dissident group. Potential opening of the economy doesn't mean that there will be any political changes here.

AMOS: You've been to Cuba many times before. Give us your impressions. How is there significant change? What's happening?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's an interesting time and I do feel that there's something happening here. For the first time, I had a senior official admit to me that there has to be change, that the problems here have to be addressed. And Raul seems to be leading the way on that. There are real problems, there's no doubt about it, but how far they'll go and what it means, what's happening here means, is difficult to say. I'm not sure they really know yet or maybe no one outside of the top leadership knows yet. And certainly the people on the ground are skeptical. As one person has said to me, we're waiting to see what will happen, but we've been in this place before and we've always been disappointed.

AMOS: Outside the country, as you know, there's been a lot of talk in the Internet about the death of Fidel, yet he's on television. What do you think drives that kind of speculation?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it depends who's doing the speculating. Clearly, there is a great deal of interest in the Miami-Cuban community about Fidel's health, about what will happen to Fidel. And I think a lot of that is being driven by Cuban Americans, Cubans outside of Cuba. In Cuba, you don't have that kind of speculation. People really think that Fidel is seriously ill, that he's not coming back. And they sort of moved on from that in a way.

AMOS: Thanks very much. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting from Havana, Cuba.

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