HOLGUIN, Cuba — Former Cuban President Fidel Castro was famous for his marathon speeches and unflinching stamina, delivering grand, looping disquisitions that could last for hours in the broiling sun.
But on Sunday, the national holiday marking the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s successor and younger brother Raul was brief and direct in his state-of-the-union-style address — in keeping with his reputation as a practical man with little patience for the island’s plodding bureaucracy.
His message was also a sobering one.
The younger Castro, 78, told a crowd of several thousand in this eastern Cuban city that the country had to pull itself out of its ongoing financial straits by working harder, saving more, and going “back to the land” with his agricultural reform efforts.
Rather than shouting political slogans, Castro said, Cubans need to grow more food.
"It is not a question of yelling ‘Homeland or death! Down with imperialism! The blockade hurts us!'" he said, referring to long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against the island. "The land is there waiting for our efforts.”
With Cuba facing an acute cash shortage and falling revenues as a result of the global recession and the inefficiencies of its own state-run economy, Castro called the country’s heavy dependency on imported foodstuffs a “national security issue.”
“Are we going to work or not? Are we going to produce or not?” Castro said, slamming the podium for effect.
Castro also said Sunday that Cuba’s communist-run government would hold several high-level meetings over the next few days to discuss the country’s economic crisis and reviews its spending projections. That raises the possibility of new belt-tightening measures for ordinary Cubans, who earn about $20 a month on average but receive food rations, subsidized utilities, and other government benefits.
Sunday’s speech marked the 56th anniversary of the Castros’ failed attack on the Moncada garrison, the event that launched their “26 of July” guerrilla uprising against U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Fulgencia Batista y Zaldivar.
It has been three years since the elder Castro, who turns 83 next month, withdrew from public and Raul began running the country. Though he initially raised expectations of economic reforms among many Cubans, Castro has made only minor changes so far to the socialist system he inherited. His most significant measure to date has been the land reform program that aims to put idle state property — 50 percent of the island’s arable land, he said Sunday — into the hands of anyone willing to farm it for profit. According to Castro, 110,000 Cubans have applied for the temporary land leases.
Dressed in his military uniform, Castro spoke for about 35 minutes and made almost no mention of the United States, another contrast to his older brother, famous for railing against “Yankee imperialism.”
Instead, Raul spoke about economic and development issues: Cuba’s progress in recovering from $10 billion in damage caused by last year’s three hurricanes, new efforts to increase the country’s water supply and improving milk production.
Castro is expected to continue downsizing Cuba’s vast government apparatus, and he drew laughter from the mostly subdued crowd when he mocked government agriculture officials who say the country can’t afford to plant more trees, asking how previous generations managed to plant the mango trees that the country enjoys today.
Castro’s call to work harder seemed to be met with a tepid response from the crowd, but resonated with some who woke up early to attend the speech. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” said Daisy Pupo Olaguivel, a 38-year-old peanut vendor who had also come to the plaza to sell her wares.
While some of her neighbors had opted to stay home and did not support the Castro government, Pupo Olaguivel said she tries “to see the positive side of things,” and said the Cuban government had given her a sense of security she equated to “freedom.”
“I don’t worry about what happens if my daughter gets sick,” she said. “I don’t have to worry that she’ll get shot when she goes to school.”
More GlobalPost dispatches from Cuba: