cubans dream of freedom

HAVANA - After a 19-month tryout by acting president Raul Castro, Cubans seem ready to focus on what his government will bring once Fidel Castro formally steps down as Cuba's all-powerful leader on Sunday.

HAVANA - After a 19-month tryout by acting president Raul Castro, Cubans seem ready to focus on what his government will bring once Fidel Castro formally steps down as Cuba's all-powerful leader on Sunday.

Their expectations, already raised by Raul Castro's talk of "structural changes" and "big decisions" to come, couldn't be higher.

Will he let more people open businesses, own homes and even travel abroad? Given that Raul is already 76, many wonder whether it will fall to a new generation of leaders to fulfil or frustrate their dreams.

As acting president, Raul has only hinted at reforms, a reticence many see as a sign of respect for his more doctrinaire, 81-year-old brother. And while hoping that Raul and his likely No 2, Carlos Lage, will advocate for change, Cubans wonder how that will fly with Fidel, who made it clear on Tuesday that he isn't going away, even though he's stepping down as president.

"There has to be some change, more freedom with Raul," said Andres, 63, who wouldn't give his last name.

"The other one always nipped that in the bud," he said.

The resignation, announced on Tuesday, should give Raul more autonomy than he's had as the government's caretaker since Fidel was sidelined by intestinal surgery in July last year.

The younger Castro raised expectations of openings in the state-controlled economy with his reported fascination with Chinese-style capitalism, calls for unspecified "structural changes," and acknowledgment that government wages averaging about R140 a month do not satisfy basic needs.

He also encouraged Cubans to open a fearless and critical debate, as long as they remember the final decisions will be made by the island's leaders.

"That way we reach decisions, and I'm talking about big decisions," he told student leaders in December.

Inspired by Raul, some leading Cuban cultural figures have called recently for dropping onerous visa requirements and other limits on their freedoms, a message that resonates with ordinary Cubans.

"This is what we needed. I hope to God people have more freedom - the freedom to have opinions and always speak their minds," 37-year-old Lydis Perez said after dropping her son off at school. "People talk in the hallways or the back rooms. There's a lot of fear."

Fidel, however, insisted in his resignation letter that he won't disappear - or stay quiet if he sees the revolution going astray.

"This is not my farewell to you," he wrote. "My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the title, 'Reflections of Comrade Fidel'. It will be another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard."

As the Council of State's first vice president, Raul has been his brother's constitutionally-designated successor for decades, so the big question is who will take his place on Sunday.

But both Lage and Raul Castro say any change will not be at the expense of socialism. And Lage has dampened hopes that Cuba would follow China and Vietnam in allowing capitalist markets to thrive. - Sapa-AP

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