WHEN ON JULY 31st 2006 Cuban state television broadcast a terse statement from Fidel Castro to say that he had to undergo emergency surgery and was temporarily handing over to his brother, Raúl (pictured with Fidel, left), it felt like the end of an era. The man who had dominated every aspect of life on the island for almost half a century seemed to be on his way out. In the event Fidel survived, and nothing appeared to change. Even so, that July evening marked the start of a slow but irreversible dismantling of communism (officially, “socialism”) in one of the tiny handful of countries in which it survived into the 21st century.
Raúl Castro, who formally took over as Cuba’s president in February 2008 and as first secretary of the Communist Party in April 2011, is trying to revive the island’s moribund economy by transferring a substantial chunk of it from state to private hands, with profound social and political implications. He has abolished a few of the many petty restrictions that pervade Cubans’ lives. He has also freed around 130 political prisoners. His government has signed the UN covenants on human rights, something his brother had jibbed at for three decades. Repression has become less brutal, though two prisoners have died on hunger strikes. Cubans grumble far more openly than they used to, and academic debate has become a bit freer. But calls for democracy and free elections are still silenced. The Communist Party remains the only legal political party in Cuba. And Raúl Castro has repeatedly dashed the hopes of many Cubans that the hated exit visa, which makes it hard (and for some, impossible) to leave the country, will be scrapped.
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