By David Roberts
One year after Raúl Castro officially took over as head of state from his brother Fidel, Cuba has made precious little progress in opening up to the world, either politically or economically.
Admittedly, ordinary Cubans are now allowed to have a mobile telephone and some other electronic goods that were previously restricted, and there have been some limited land reforms implemented to encourage private agriculture. Some of Cuba’s taxis are even now run as private businesses, and the island’s government has shown some, albeit very hush-hush, interest in learning about Chilean and Uruguayan public works concessions, particularly for airports, highways and ports.
But Cuba remains a political and economic backwater. While enjoying relatively high health and educational standards, and no one need die of starvation, the Cuban people are mired in poverty and repression. The Castros may blame the US embargo for the country’s economic plight, but that’s no excuse. If they gave their people the opportunity to elect their own government, the embargo would quickly disappear.
Looking at the string of foreign presidents who have visited the island recently, it’s also pretty clear that Fidel still wields considerable influence. In fact, most of his recent visitors, such as Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, appeared keener to meet the tracksuit-clad Fidel than his brother. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Fidel – who’s looked remarkably sprightly in the few photos of him released to the media recently – is off the scene altogether before Raúl dares to make a serious move to open up the country and establish genuine democracy and a regulated market economy, or maybe we’ll have to wait for Raúl to go too. But sooner or later, it must happen.