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Raul Castro leaves a troubled Cuba to his successor

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In 2008 Raul Castro took over a country where most people couldn’t own computers or cellphones, leave without permission, run most types of private businesses or enter resort hotels.

Castro set about re-engineering the system he had helped create and Cuba opened dramatically over his decade in office. But when Castro steps down Thursday after two terms as president he will leave his successor a host of problems that are deeper than on the day his brother Fidel formally handed over power.

Cuba has nearly 600,000 private entrepreneurs, more than 5 million cellphones, a bustling real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Limited internet use is expanding fast, with thousands of Cubans installing new home connections this year. Foreign debt has been paid. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

On the other side of the ledger, Cuba’s Soviet-style command economy still employs three of every four Cuban workers but produces little. Private sector growth has been largely frozen. The average monthly state salary is $31 — so low that workers often live on stolen goods and handouts from relatives overseas. Foreign investment remains anemic. The island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The break with Washington dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“People in Cuba really haven’t processed yet what it means to have a government without Raul or Fidel leading it,” said Yassel Padron Kunakbaeva, a prolific 27-year-old blogger who writes frequently from what he describes as a Marxist, revolutionary perspective. “We’re entering unknown territory.”

Tens of thousands of highly educated professionals are abandoning the island each year, leaving Cuba with the combination of third-world economy and the demographics of a graying European nation. After a 2016 recession, Cuba said growth was 1.6 percent last year, although official accounts remain opaque and questioned by experts. The single-party government controls virtually all forms of expression and organization, with near-zero tolerance of public criticism or dissent. The mood on the street is pessimistic, with few expecting a better future anytime soon.

“The political future of whoever takes over in April depends on the economic question,” said Jose Raul Viera Linares, a former first deputy minister of foreign affairs. “It’s the possibility for young people to dream, to design their own future. That’s all based in the material wealth that this country is able to achieve.”

The greatest immediate challenge for Castro’s expected successor — 57-year-old Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez — is unwinding a byzantine dual-currency system featuring one type of Cuban peso worth 4 cents and another that is nearly a dollar. The system was designed to insulate a state-run, egalitarian internal market using “national money” from trade with the outside world denominated in “convertible pesos.”

The barrier between the two worlds swiftly collapsed and the system has fostered big economic distortions. Inefficient state enterprises receive mammoth subsidies by obtaining expensive convertible pesos for the price of the cheaper “Cuban peso.” The dual-currency system also allows private businesses to receive subsidized goods and services like water and electricity in Cuban pesos, then turn around and charge their relatively wealthy clients in convertible pesos at a significant profit.

Castro called for elimination of the dual currencies from the beginning of his presidency, but never got around to it. Unlike his brother Fidel, who extended his time in office until illness forced him to retire, Raul has long made clear that he would step down as president in 2018 as part of a coordinated handoff to a new generation of leaders.

He will remain first secretary of the Communist Party, the country’s guiding body, but many Cubans expect him to move into semi-retirement in Santiago, the largest city in Cuba’s east, where he was born and led rebel troops in the country’s 1959 revolution.

In one of his final speeches last year he called once again for the system’s urgent elimination, a process that many expect to start in Diaz-Canel’s first year in power. Eliminating dual currency is widely seen as necessary for Cuba’s economy to grow, but it carries risks of inflation and major disruption for inefficient state businesses whose subsidized balance sheets will finally become understandable when they are denominated in a single currency.

Those state businesses gained new competitors as Castro expanded the space for capitalism in the Cuban economy by permitting private enterprise in dozens of fields ranging from agriculture to hospitality to construction.

“We’ve risen up economically. The new possibilities have changed my life, of course,” said Yanelis Garcia, a 44-year-old mother of three who saved money from raising pigs in her backyard to slowly build a prosperous six-room bed-and-breakfast and taxi business in the central city of Santa Clara. “I’ve always liked having my own business to be able to provide for my family. It’s been really good.”

Cubans fill thousands of flights a year to Miami, Panama and Cancun, where they cram duffel bags with gym socks and Xboxes for the vibrant private sector and rising middle class. But last August, the Cuban government froze new licenses for private bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and other popular businesses, leaving many Cubans questioning how their government envisions a path to prosperity.

“We’ve seen necessary reforms and I think that in the future there will have to be more,” said Norma Chiang, a 77-year-old state accountant and auditor. “Self-employment needs to be broadened, little things like bakeries or food stands that can be in the hands of individuals and not the state.”

Despite the image of Raul Castro as an all-powerful military strongman, many Cubans say back-and-forth moves and the overall slow pace of reform have shown the difficulty of modernizing a Soviet-era bureaucracy controlled by hundreds of thousands of civil servants who would be threatened by a transition into a market economy, a difficulty Castro’s successor will also face.

“No one dares to disobey Raul to his face. They quietly don’t get things done and search for ways to cover their backs so no one can accuse them of not getting things done,” Padron said.

Cuba’s next president also must find a way to make its economy grow while maintaining social stability and satisfying the millions of Cubans who depend on the state and a shrinking list of subsidized essentials sold in Cuban pesos for their survival. While Cuba sees Russia as one of its closest allies, Cuba’s leaders are desperate to prevent the sort of shock transition to capitalism that marked the end of the Soviet Union.

“I can’t eat, dress myself and live on $20 a month,” said Adela Arpajon, a 54-year-old accountant for the Communist Party. “I either eat or buy clothes. It’s hard, but that’s the way it is.”

Wariness of disruption is exacerbated by Cuba’s increasing economic dependence on the Cuban emigres and exiles once seen by the Communist government as a threat to its survival.

As part of his broader immigration reforms, Raul Castro changed Cuba’s relationship with its diaspora by allowing Cubans to maintain their rights to own property and receive social benefits as long as they return once every two years. That change fueled the growth of a new class of Cubans who earn money overseas but invest at home and are responsible for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in small-scale investment on the island in recent years.

More than 20,000 Cuban emigres have “repatriated” and regained their property rights since the emigration reforms, according to Cuban figures. Still, the flow of emigres back to Cuba is swamped by the outward flood of Cubans unleashed by Castro’s elimination of the hated exit permit known as the “white card.” According to U.S. Homeland Security statistics, the United States admitted 463,502 Cubans between 2006 and 2016, with tens of thousands more heading to countries such as Spain and Ecuador.

“I don’t think people have realized how momentous that is in terms of for the first time having circular migration,” said Lisandro Perez, an expert on the Cuban diaspora at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “They take back things, they finance private restaurants. It’s a totally different ballgame.”

Castro’s successor will have to manage the delicate relationship with Cuba’s prosperous exiles at a time when relations with the U.S. have dropped from an unprecedented high under President Barack Obama to a deep low under President Donald Trump.

For Reinaldo Taladrid, a popular commentator on state television, tensions with the U.S. will serve as a brake on any reforms sought by Raul Castro’s successor.

“While there’s a sense of a state of siege, there’s an instinct of self-preservation that doesn’t have anything to do with politics. It’s the human instinct for self-preservation. You have the world’s most powerful state, the most powerful government in the history of humanity that has regime change in Cuba as its official policy,” Taladrid said. “While that’s true this little, poor country’s government will have a siege mentality, and it’s logical to have it.”

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico

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The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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The Last Castro; Raul retires as Cuban president

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Raul Castro turned over Cuba’s presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.

Castro’s 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation’s future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said. The 86-year-old general broke frequently from his prepared remarks to joke and banter with officials on the dais in the National Assembly, saying he looked forward to having more time to travel the country.

In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“There’s no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle,” Diaz-Canel said. “For us, it’s totally clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba, the guiding force of society and the state, guarantees the unity of the nation of Cuba.”

Diaz-Canel said he would work to implement a long-term plan laid out by the National Assembly and communist party that would continue allowing the limited growth of private enterprises like restaurants and taxis, while leaving the economy’s most important sectors such as energy, mining, telecommunications, medical services and rum- and cigar-production in the hands of the state.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

Cubans said they expected their new president to deliver improvements to the island’s economy, which remains stagnant and dominated by inefficient, unproductive state-run enterprises that are unable to provide salaries high enough to cover basic needs. The average monthly pay for state workers is roughly $30 a month, forcing many to steal from their workplaces and depend on remittances from relatives abroad.

“I hope that Diaz-Canel brings prosperity,” said Richard Perez, a souvenir salesman in Old Havana. “I want to see changes, above all economic changes allowing people to have their own businesses, without the state in charge of so many things.”

But in Miami, Cuban-Americans said they didn’t expect much from Diaz-Canel.

“It’s a cosmetic change,” said Wilfredo Allen, a 66-year-old lawyer who left Cuba two years after the Castros’ 1959 revolution. “The reality is that Raul Castro is still controlling the Communist Party. We are very far from having a democratic Cuba.”

After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba’s private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

Castro’s moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding-father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“I want the country to advance,” said Susel Calzado, a 61-year-old economics professor. “We already have a plan laid out.”

Most Cubans have known their new president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Castro’s declaration Thursday that he saw Diaz-Canel in power for more than a decade was likely to resolve much of the uncertainty about the power the new president would wield inside the Cuban system.

“The same thing we’re doing with him, he’ll have to do with his successor,” Castro said. “When his 10 years of service as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers are over, he’ll have three years as first secretary in order to facilitate the transition. This will help us avoid mistakes by his successor, until (Diaz-Canel) retires to take care of the grandchildren he will have then, if he doesn’t have them already, or his great-grandchildren.”

Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what she called the “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won’t rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!”

Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that for the moment he would defer to the man who founded the Cuban communist system along with his brother Fidel. He said he would retain Castro’s cabinet through at least July, when the National Assembly meets again.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hard-liners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes in coming days and weeks.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

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Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.

 

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