Cuba Waits for Obama as Ailing Fidel Castro Fades From Scene

Washington may move first to break the decades-old Cold War standoff with Havana.

The same aging U.S. automobiles have been plying the streets of Havana, Cuba’s capital, for decades.

The same aging U.S. automobiles have been plying the streets of Havana, Cuba’s capital, for decades.

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Raúl Castro has taken an off-ramp from his brother's Communist economic orthodoxy. But the goal, he says, is not to dismantle socialism but make it more efficient. He has alluded to the system's fictions, noting, "Sometimes in socialism two plus two equals three." He has called for eliminating "excessive" regulations, trimming some subsidies, and making wages reflect the value of work. Most visibly, he has expanded consumer choices, permitting Cubans to purchase microwave ovens, DVD players, and cellphones.

The most significant reforms are in agriculture. Raúl settled past debts to farmers and lifted the prices they receive. The state is now leasing out large swaths of unused land to private farmers and allowing them to buy supplies directly from state stores. The changes are bringing more produce to markets just months after hurricanes devastated farms.

In Güira de Melena, a rural area south of Havana dotted with fields of onions, sweet potatoes, and plantains, a private farmer named Eddy Alfonso Sánchez describes his improving fortunes. "The payments now are very fast. We get better prices for our products," Alfonso, 31, says. The new prosperity has allowed him to add a Russian tractor to his vintage 1952 35-horsepower Ferguson model. He has also bought a car and a motorcycle.

In politics, Raúl's moves are more cautious. He authorized limited debate in the state-controlled media and elsewhere about economic problems, and newspapers have written about corruption and poor services. The State Department dismisses the moves as "small" and "very controlled," but here they have significance. "People are talking inside the system and in ways that you wouldn't hear five years ago," says Luís René Fernández Tabío, a political scientist at the University of Havana.

At the same time, the Communist Party and the Castros face no serious challenge. Dissidents, many jailed after a 2003 crackdown, are being released slowly, but they remain marginalized. Blogging appears to be the only area where criticism of the state is growing, despite sharp restrictions on Internet access.

Government media control has not meant freezing out American culture. Ask university students and others what they watch on television, and the answer includes American shows like Grey's Anatomy, House, The Sopranos, and Prison Break. Fernando Rojas Gutiérrez, a vice minister for culture, expresses the hope that Obama will restore the wider cultural exchanges scrapped by Bush. As for American culture, he says, "Our philosophy is quite different from that of the former socialist bloc. We never banned or prohibited it."

The most important development in Cuban politics, though, is that the transition from Fidel—formalized just over a year ago—has gone smoothly. In public, Raúl, 77, shows deference to Fidel, but there is little doubt who is calling the shots. This month, Raúl shook up his cabinet, firing two younger ministers often pegged as potential successors. It was disclosed that Raúl had consulted with Fidel, but Raúl has now put more of his own stamp on the government, in the process deepening the influence of the military, where he spent decades as defense minister.

Lacking Fidel's iconic status, Raúl has dispensed with the revolutionary theatrics of his brother. The younger Castro's speeches are measured in minutes, not hours. He seems to recognize that ideology here moves few and bores many. "Raúl's mission is to make practical changes to improve people's lives," says Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Tames.

Pragmatism will be required on both sides to overcome the deadlock between Cuba and the United States. It may be that any détente will have to begin modestly. The Obama administration may first try talking with Cuba about "neighborhood" issues like immigration, drug trafficking, and the environment. "This would be a good place to start. There's no political minefield to hold us or them back," reasons Philip Peters, a Cuba watcher at the Lexington Institute. That may not be the full breakthrough many have hoped for. But with half a century of mutual distrust and inertia to overcome, it may be the best that can be done.