Havana - For Cubans there were various surprises at Monday's annual July 26th rally in the central city of Santa Clara.
First, despite a rash of public appearances this month, the first in four years, Cuba's former President Fidel Castro, 83, was not in attendance at the event which marked the 57th anniversary of his eventually successful efforts to oust the Batista dictatorship. Rumors that he would attend have swept the island in past weeks.
Second, President Raul Castro presided over the event but broke with tradition and did not deliver the main speech. Instead he yielded the podium to 1st Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, considered a hardliner.
It was like a glass of cold water in the face for Cubans whoin what is usually an annual State of the Union address. Even though Raul Castro, 79, is known to dislike public speaking, his failure to do so today fuels rumors at street level that he is ill, although he appeared healthy enough during this morning's event.
Machado quoted previous statements by Raul Castro on the priority that must be given to the economy, food production and agriculture, but he also declared, "we will not be led by foreign press campaigns," presumably irked by articles dealing with the need for more openness and opportunity in the Cuban economy. Furthermore, Machado's statement that Cuba would not improvise or act hastily was bound to be unwelcome to a population largely frustrated by the government's failure to move more rapidly to improve deteriorating living conditions.
There has been great expectation among Cubans ever since Raul Castro stepped into his elder brother's shoes, precisely because he is known as a pragmatic problem solver. However, the slowness with which the government has moved since then has frustrated people struggling to make due on inadequate salaries, coping with shortages, and a deterioration of health care, education and other services.
Not everyone is discouraged by this morning's showing. An academic who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he believed Raul Castro was reserving his remarks for the National Assembly, or parliament, meeting on August 1. "That's where they're going to discuss economic changes," he said. "It's going to be a very important meeting."
Like several other people we spoke with, the academic said Raul Castro's decision not to deliver a major economic statement was probably influenced by the presence of a large, high-level Venezuelan delegation at the rally.
A bilateral economic cooperation summit is underway on one of the keys off the northern coast of Villa Clara province, close to the city of Santa Clara. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was supposed to fly to Cuba yesterday to attend the July 26th rally before participating in the summit. He cancelled at the last minute, citing escalating hostilities with neighboring Colombia. In his place, Venezuelan Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez spoke at the rally.
"There are some things you don't discuss when you have guests in your home," said the academic. "Rodriguez gave a speech on international issues and I'm sure Raul didn't want to follow with a speech on domestic problems."
Two reliable sources say the privatization or corporatization of services and other small businesses is most likely on the agenda of the upcoming parliament session. Beauty parlors and barber shops have already been turned over to their employees, although that fact has not been reported by the local media.
There are indications that some farmers' markets will be privatized. An item in the latest edition of Tribuna de la Habana indicates that change might already be underway. It said that markets were being opened along main highways where private farmers can bring their products to sell, with prices being set by supply and demand. It added that at the end of the day these farmers would pay the State a tax based on their sales. There are already farmers' markets in the cities where prices are set by vendors based on supply and demand, but the resulting high prices have drawn fire from consumers whose budgets simply don't allow them to pay 10 pesos for a small avocado just coming into season, or 5 pesos for a pineapple.
In addition, those sources say, the long-awaited Communist Party Conference will be held in November, and will take up the issue of reorganizing the Cuban economy and the establishment of a single currency, which is a major demand from people whose wages are paid in one currency--the non-convertible Cuban pesos--but who are forced to buy basic necessities such as bath soap and cooking oil in the Convertible Cuban Currency, or CUC, because such items are simply not available otherwise. The CUC was introduced in 1994 in the midst of the economic freefall that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the European socialist countries that had been Cuba's main trading partners.
Cuban economists have longed debated just how the cash-strapped country can eliminate its dual currency, and President Castro has repeatedly made it clear that the country's situation will not improve unless productivity can be raised. He has also said that the government cannot afford to continue its heavy subsidizing of goods and services.
In his speech to the tens of thousands of Communist Party faithful that filled the Plaza in Santa Clara Monday morning, Vice President Machado said, "Savings, reduction of costs, and the maximum rationing of energy and resources are our urgent needs in all areas." Changes in the economy, he said, would be gradual. "We will never accept outside pressure."
But observers say there may be a groundswell of domestic pressure to step up the pace of change, as a younger generation of Cubans comes of age divorced from the revolutionary sentiments of their grandparents, and less altruistic and more materialistic in their approach to life.