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Raul Castro pushes change for Cubans

  • Story Highlights
  • Cubans have greater access to consumer goods in recent months
  • Some unused state land being turned over to farmers
  • Analysts see little change in Cuba policy by Bush administration
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By Morgan Neill
CNN Havana Bureau Chief
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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- During his two months in power, Cuban President Raul Castro has implemented a series of changes affecting life in Cuba in a variety of ways.

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Raul Castro was chosen Sunday to take over Cuba's presidency from his brother, Fidel Castro.

Cubans who can afford it can now use cell phones, stay in tourist hotels and buy energy-consuming goods such as rice cookers and DVD players -- which were forbidden when Raul's brother Fidel ran the show.

The 81-year-old charismatic leader handed off the power to his 76-year-old brother in February after having been in poor health since July 2006.

Raul has moved quickly. In the countryside, a new program is turning over unused state land to farmers who work the soil for profit. And the government is studying a proposal that would allow Cubans to travel abroad without first seeking permission. Video Watch a report on the realities in Cuba »

But don't look for the changes on the island to effect much change from the Bush administration.

Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sought to explain why, in this exchange:

McCormack: "You have a situation now in which a handful of people who have been in place for the past several decades determine the direction of this country, what happens in the country, whether or not people can express their opinion freely in the town square, which they cannot."

Reporter: "So you are talking about Cuba or China? Or Saudi Arabia?"

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It's true, Cuba's press is controlled by the state and the Communist Party. In the latest elections, all the candidates ran unopposed. And, as the government proved again this week, when it broke up a sit-in by dissidents, it doesn't tolerate political opposition.

Plus, the disagreements have become personal. The U.S. and Cuban governments routinely insult one another. Billboards in Havana equate U.S. President George W. Bush with Adolf Hitler, and Washington refers to Cuba's new president as "Dictator-Lite."

Though Bush is due to leave office in January, that may not portend a change in policy, according to one policy analyst.

"If you have a Republican who wins the presidency, you're more likely to see continuity," said Daniel P. Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs based in Washington."

Regarding the Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois both "tend to have slightly more lenient policies toward Cuba," he said. "They both favor, for example, expanding family travel by Cuban-Americans. And Obama has obviously gone the furthest, saying he would negotiate with Raul Castro."

In the United States, support for the 46-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba is mixed.

"For years, I have opposed the embargo on Cuba," House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told CNN en Espanol. "I don't think it's been successful, and I think we have to remove the travel bans and have more exchanges -- people to people exchanges with Cuba."

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In Havana, even many of Castro's most strident opponents agree. But it remains popular among some Cuban exiles in Florida, a powerful political bloc.

Thus, changing the policy, in the end, may depend as much on U.S. politics as on anything that happens 90 miles south of Florida. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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