By Marc Frank
Thursday, September 20, 2007; 12:48 PM
HAVANA (Reuters) - At workplaces and in neighborhoods across Cuba, people are complaining about the state of their country in a national debate on economic reform opened by acting President Raul Castro.
After years of economic crisis, Cubans are being asked to propose fixes in group discussions after Castro acknowledged in a keynote speech on July 26 that wages are too low and agriculture needs structural reforms to feed the country.
"People were expressing themselves like never before about all the problems in their lives," a Communist Party member said after attending a meeting. "Raul is raising everyone's expectations, so he better have some solutions."
Common complaints range from low wages, which average about $15 a month, and poor services to restrictions on killing your own cow, buying cars and booking rooms in hotels reserved for tourists.
"When the meeting started, nobody wanted to speak, but we were told to speak out frankly about the issues raised by Raul, and everything that affects us," said Lariza, who sells coffee to her fellow workers to supplement her salary.
Since "temporarily" taking charge of the Cuban government and the Communist Party from his ailing 81-year-old brother Fidel Castro a year ago, Raul Castro has repeatedly called for more debate and constructive criticism.
He also demanded studies from experts on reform proposals to raise productivity, including on the state's ownership of the economy, which exceeds 90 percent.
But it is not yet clear how far he plans to take reforms, and Fidel Castro pushed similar initiatives in the past.
"Grass-roots debate is not new in Cuba. There was a similar debate led by Fidel in the late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s," said Rafael Hernandez, editor of "Temas" (Issues), a magazine that for a decade has encouraged limited discussion of controversial issues from race relations to market economics.
The last issue focused on transitions in the former Soviet Union, China and other countries, and featured intellectuals, youth leaders and Cuban officials, many of whom said state control of the economy was not a prerequisite for socialism.
"What's new is that Fidel is less active and others need to build a new consensus as people are not responding to current policy," Hernandez said. "Cubans interpret Raul's call for structural change to mean deep changes in the model, not just a cosmetic change."
REFORM OR PERISH
Fidel Castro writes regular essays for the state-run media and officials say he is consulted on important issues, but he has not been seen, even in a photograph, since early June.
In his absence, there is growing pressure to make changes.
"It's reform or perish! The world and in particular, Latin America and the Caribbean have changed so dramatically that it becomes inevitable to rethink Cuban socialism," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who defected in the early 1990s and now teaches college in Florida.
Canadian historian and author on Cuba, John Kirk, says Cuba is now better able to consider economic reforms because its finances have recovered thanks to a close alliance with oil-producing Venezuela, generous trade credits from China and high prices for its nickel exports.
"The Cuban government is in the process of seeking innovative approaches to an unusual dilemma," Kirk said. "The economic situation continues to improve, but inequalities and other problems persist from the long post-Soviet crisis."
Another complaint in discussion groups has been Cuba's dual currency system, under which state salaries are paid in pesos and consumer goods are sold in hard currency, the so-called convertible peso.
Authorities have studied unifying the currencies, but economists say economic productivity must come first.
Self-employed Cubans, a minority often attacked by Fidel Castro for getting rich at the expense of state subsidies, have also been invited to debate reforms at neighborhood watch groups, which serve as the eyes and ears of the revolution.
"They read out part of Raul's speech, and then they asked me if I had any problems working," said Jacinto, who sells ham and cheese sandwiches and juices from his home, with a state license.
"They asked me if the taxes I paid were too high," Jacinto said with amazement. Not surprisingly, he said they were.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Vales)