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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.”

___

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

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Colorado

Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

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Get to Crested Butte Colorado for a wildflower wonderland

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Crested Butte’s wildflowers cast a spell on Michelle Bivens at an early age.

“It goes back to about 6 or 7 years old,” she recalls, when her family camped every summer among the vibrant arrays, library books in hand to identify the great variety that makes the mountain town “the wildflower capital of Colorado.”

With a family of her own, she bounced around from Colorado Springs, to Austin, Texas, to Woodland Park over 22 years. But in 2012, Bivens moved the husband and kids to the valley that stayed in her dreams.

“There’s no place like it,” she says — a truth that comforts wildflower buffs in dry years like these when their backyards don’t yield the typical burst.

Bivens is executive director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, the weeklong celebration that starts July 6 and will mean more to flora fanatics of the Pikes Peak region and beyond.

That includes George Cameron. He’s a founder of the Native Plant Society’s local chapter, a retired botany professor who’s more than disappointed by what he’s seeing, or not, in his go-to spot, Stratton Open Space.

“This is the worst possible year,” Cameron says. “I live for the wildflowers every year, and it’s very depressing when they’re not there.”

He treasures higher displays on the mountain, those that grace Elk Park and Devils Playground, for example. And while he has yet to visit with “peak season” approaching, he fears the flowers haven’t had the moisture to bloom in abundance.

“There’s been no snowpack, nothing for them,” he says. “I’m not hopeful it’ll be very good this year.”

But for the fields and hills around Crested Butte, his faith is strong. “That’s because of the soil.”

While Pikes Peak’s granite is hydrophobic, washing away moisture, the earth surrounding the glacier-formed area of Crested Butte is composed of shale that better retains water. Snow melts, and life beneath has a better chance of emerging in all its glory.

Indeed, judging by photos out of Crested Butte, the flowers are popping a week before the festival. Snow melted earlier than usual, Bivens says, and the killing cold winds didn’t strike later.

“The good news is the flowers are coming early, and they didn’t freeze,” she says.

So Jason Odell is gearing up for a visit. The Colorado Springs photographer and teacher plans to soon escort clients to Crested Butte, to capture the scene he’s been scouting for almost two decades.

 

He encourages students to enjoy the landscape, the perfect beauty pairing with iconic Colorado ruggedness, but to also pay attention to details. He wants them to kneel before a flower, to photograph the changing shades of a columbine, the dancing of lupines, the petals splaying from an Indian paintbrush’s stem.

“I think wildflowers are so popular because they’re so ephemeral; they’re only around for a few months or sometimes even a few weeks,” Odell says. “And they have this diversity of color that normally we don’t get in our everyday landscape. … It’s being able to say you saw something totally unique.”

The flowers “pull you out of ordinary existence,” Cameron says. In his Pikes Peak Community College pupils, he sought to instill a reverence for the different species, expressing how they all grow on different terms, some appearing only once in a generation, and how they all can exist in harmony.

“There’s always something new to find out,” says Tom Zeiner, a geologist who’s made wildflowers his focus in retirement.

Naturally, he has a summer home in Crested Butte, where during the festival he leads educational hikes, guiding from the valley floor to the high-alpine zones where the colors change, where it’s common for him to spot a flower he’s never noticed before. Already, Zeiner says, he’s observed impressive swaths of glacier lilies and other classics.

But the early bloom highlights a trend concerning climate change onlookers. If the flowers show earlier, will pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds be around to ensure they last?

More immediate threats are the rising number of explorers who pick the flowers and trample off-trail, Bivens says. The nonprofit festival aims to make people “appreciate the wild places we have,” she says. What better teacher than the fragile, mysterious wildflowers?

“It really is quite a miracle that unfolds,” she says.

___

Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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