Cuban flags wave as a crowd of 10,000 hears Raul Castro's 26th of July speech in Santiago.
Cuban flags wave as a crowd of 10,000 hears Raul Castro's 26th of July speech in Santiago. Jason Beaubien/NPR
Cuban President Raul Castro led the celebrations Saturday night to mark the 55th anniversary of the revolution that brought his brother Fidel to power. But he urged a crowd in Santiago to remain patient when it comes to reforms. And he offered no major new initiatives.
About 10,000 Cubans chanting "Fidel" filed into rows of blue plastic chairs for Raul Castro's speech at the Moncada military barracks.
Almost every member of the audience had a small, single-starred Cuban flag in one hand and a black and red 26th of July flag in the other.
This was Raul Castro's first 26th of July speech since officially taking over as president in February. But he has been in charge of the government since July 2006, when his brother fell ill.
Recently Raul Castro has lifted bans on some consumer goods, including cell phones. He's also proposed letting farmers cultivate fallow state-owned land essentially as private entrepreneurs.
Before the speech, many people here said they thought he might use this address to open Cuba's economy and society even further. But he didn't.
His biggest announcement was a prediction that an aqueduct renovation to provide water every day to Santiago should be completed by 2010. Residents there complain that the water is often out for days and even weeks on end.
Earlier this month, Raul Castro suggested that workers might no longer be paid equally. He said that socialism means equality of rights but not necessarily equality of income. But in Saturday's address, he tempered expectations.
"We are aware of the huge quantity of problems left to solve," he said. "and most of these problems affect the population directly."
Cuba, which used to be the world's largest sugar exporter, is facing a crisis in agriculture. It is now heavily dependent on U.S. food imports, which have been exempted from Washington's long-standing embargo.
Cuba's infrastructure is crumbling. Raul Castro said the government has plans to rebuild roads, pipelines, houses and railways. But he didn't address whether Cubans might be allowed to freely leave the country or whether they can buy and sell houses. He avoided mentioning the dilemma of Cuba's dual-currency which often forces people to buy necessities in a currency they're not allowed to earn.
Raul Castro spoke in front of a giant banner of his brother. In the photo, Fidel Castro thrusts his fist triumphantly in the air.
"Long live the revolution," Raul Castro said, concluding the speech. "Long live Free Cuba."
Cuba can be a dangerous place for people to talk to reporters. Dissidents can lose their jobs or even get sent to jail. Earlier in the day someone in declining to be interviewed said that only "drunks, children and fools" would be quoted in the foreign press.
After the event, a man who gave his name as Eduardo praised the speech as very patriotic. He dismissed the idea that Raul is trying to change Cuba and said Raul Castro's presidency is an extension of Fidel's glorious revolution.
"Here, there's only one line. There's no change," Eduardo said. "Here we have one revolutionary life. There's no change."
And in this speech ... by not offering any radical policy shifts or significant new plans ... Raul Castro suggested that as president, if he does offer more changes, they're going to be gradual.