(Reuters) – President Raul Castro will mark the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution on Monday on a bit of a roll internationally, but still struggling to modernize one of the world’s last communist economies.
He is expected to make the annual July 26 speech at a morning ceremony in the central city of Santa Clara, beside a monument holding the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine who helped lead the armed uprising that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959.
Raul Castro, who replaced older brother Fidel in 2008, this month sprung the biggest surprise of his administration by agreeing in a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to free 52 political prisoners.
The announcement of the release quieted, at least for the moment, international criticism of Cuba that followed the February death of an imprisoned hunger striker and raised hope for improved relations with the United States and Europe.
But on the domestic front, Castro’s success has been muted, at best, and the Caribbean island remains mired in financial problems.
He will speak to a nation waiting for him to make good on an early pledge to improve the economy and raise salaries that average the equivalent of $18 a month.
The most urgent complaint of most Cubans is that they are tired of having only enough money and government subsidies to scrape by.
“I work every day and I make 250 pesos ($11.30) a month. I have to invent to survive,” said 28-year-old construction worker Enrique, who did not give his full name. “Invent” is a word commonly used in Cuba for finding ways, usually illegal under Cuban law, to make extra money.
Castro has tweaked the system to try to create incentives for greater productivity and to improve efficiency, but he has moved slowly, saying he wants to avoid mistakes that could endanger the future of Cuban communism.
‘SOMETHING IS MOVING’
Many Cubans complain that he needs to speed up because the greater need is to improve the present.
The president’s daughter, Mariela Castro, alluded to the problem in a recent interview with German magazine Der Spiegel when she said most Cubans who leave the island are looking for “better economic conditions.”
“We have to create more attractive policies for young people, so that it makes economic sense for them to stay. We need growth and a better quality of life for everyone,” she told the magazine.
She said the Cuban government knows “that our people want more flexibility and liberality. How this can happen is now the subject of discussion in many committees. It’s a slow process, but something is moving.”
Whether the president will address those issues on Monday is unknown, but he is more reticent than his older brother was and has made many of his changes without announcing them.
Most likely his speech will be the “usual rhetoric” but with the possibility of “a slight, flirtatious mention of change for international audiences,” said Christopher Sabatini an analyst at the Council of the Americas in Washington.
“They know they have the world’s attention with the release of the 52. They may go no further, but they don’t want to lose attention either,” he said.
The political prisoners release likely will not be directly mentioned because the topic is rarely raised by Cuban officials, although the Catholic Church’s announcement of the deal was published in state-run press.
Cuba views the jailed dissidents as mercenaries of the United States, working to topple the government.
Castro’s speech will be part of a celebration of a July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba by young rebels led by Fidel Castro.
The attack failed, with many of the rebels killed, but it began the armed insurrection against U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista that ended in victory on January 1, 1959.
Fidel Castro, 83, has recently emerged from four years of seclusion that followed emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006, but there has been no word from the government that he will attend Monday’s event.
Venezuelan President and close ally Hugo Chavez has said he will attend and that Raul Castro had asked him to speak at the ceremony.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Xavier Briand)