ROBERT SMITH, host:
Anyone who follows the politics of Cuba was watching very carefully last night. President Raul Castro led a celebration that marked the 55th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution that brought his brother, Fidel, to power. Since Raul took over, he's been softening some of Cuba's strict controls on its people. But last night, he told the crowd that the island must be patient. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Santiago.
(Soundbite of chanting)
JASON BEAUBIEN: Some 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. Raul has been in charge since July of 2006, when his brother fell ill. Fidel hasn't appeared in public since. Recently, Raul 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.
President RAUL CASTRO (Cuba): (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: We must get used to not only receiving good news, Raul told the crowd. His biggest announcement was that an aqueduct renovation to provide water every day to Santiago should be completed by 2010. Currently, residents there complain that the water is often out for days, 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.
President CASTRO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: 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's now heavily dependent on U.S. food imports, which have been exempted from Washington's long-standing embargo.
Its infrastructure is crumbling. Raul 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, or the dilemma of Cuba's dual-currency, which often forces people to buy necessities in a currency they're not allowed to earn. Raul spoke in front of a giant banner of his brother. In the photo, Fidel has his fist thrust triumphantly in the air. Raul also promised victory.
President CASTRO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Long live the revolution, he concluded. 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 only wanted to give his name as Eduardo praised the speech as very patriotic. He dismissed the idea that Raul is trying to change Cuba and said Raul's presidency is an extension of Fidel's glorious revolution.
EDUARDO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Here, there's only one line. There's no change, Eduardo said. Here, we have one revolutionary life. There's no change. And Raul in this speech, by not offering any radical policy shifts or significant new plans, suggested that as president, if he does offer more changes, they're going to be gradual. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Santiago, Cuba.
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