HOLGUIN, Cuba - Only sweat and hard work, and not revolutionary slogans, will lift Cuba from grinding economic times, President Raul Castro said on July 26, the 56th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution.
Planting crops on idle farm land is especially urgent, he told tens of thousands of countrymen.
“The land is there…let’s see if we can work it, if we produce or not, if we keep our word or not,” Castro said. “It’s not a question of shouting ‘Homeland or death! Down with imperialism.’ The land is there waiting for our sweat.”
Castro spoke in the eastern town of Holguin. Cuban newspapers put the crowd at more than 200,000. Many chanted “Fidel, Fidel.” Others responded with cries of “Raul, Raul.”
July 26 commemorates a daring rebel attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, the country‘s second-largest city. The 1953 attack was a failure, but it launched the Cuban revolution that forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959.
More than a half century later, Cuba is reeling from economic troubles and a string of hurricanes that caused more than $10 billion in damage in 2008.
Even before the storms, many Cubans say they were having trouble putting food on the table.
More than half the country’s farm land is idle, much of it overrun with an invasive plant known as marabu. Officials are giving away land with hopes of boosting agricultural production.
“It’s a question of national security to produce the crops that grow in this country and which we spend hundreds of millions of dollars - and I‘m not exaggerating - to bring from other countries,” Raul Castro said.
Fidel Castro presided over the July 26 anniversary in 2006, but fell ill days later and underwent emergency intestinal surgery. He later announced he was retiring, and his younger brother was named president in February 2008.
Early on, Raul Castro called for improving efficiency, cutting government bureaucracy and boosting food production.
“We should not be at peace as long as land remains idle,” Castro said. And if land isn’t fit for crops, trees should be planted, he said.
Planting trees isn’t all that difficult, he said, joking that “even young people” like himself can do it.
“Yes, we can,” he said.
Castro’s supporters said they liked what they heard.
“It was a very important speech,” said Alexis Triana, the agriculture director in Holguin province. “We need to be self-sufficient in food production.”
Triana complained about the longtime U.S. ban on trade with Cuba, saying it has hurt the economy. But he said Cubans have learned to survive despite what they describe as an economic “blockade.”
“During the economic crisis of the ‘90s, there didn’t seem to be a way out,” he said. “But we’ve learned that even when there’s no alternative, there is always another way.”
Blocks away, not everyone was as enthusiastic about Castro’s speech.
Efren Oro, 65, a retiree who says he still works to supplement a $10-per-month pension, complained that government officials can’t seem to fix the economy.
“They don’t have anything to talk about,” he said. “It’s almost always the same.”
A man named Lazaro, who drives a bicycle taxi, complained that he has to work 14 or 15 hours a day to feed himself and his family.
Asked for his last name, the man replied, “That which I don’t have. What I don’t have is peace,” he said.
“My name is de la Paz.“ Paz means peace in Spanish.
Another Holguin resident, Fermin Camejo, 38, said he’s optimistic about the future.
Cuba isn’t as developed as some other nations, but has become a powerhouse in “culture, health and sports,” he said.
And that’s despite American economic sanctions, which he described as “inhumane.”
“We want to live in brotherhood, not war. We don’t want to fight with anyone,” he said.
- Tracey Eaton