By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban government reforms expanding the private sector are driving real change on the communist-ruled island, spurring hopes for economic growth and greater freedom, a U.S. pro-democracy group said on Friday.
Freedom House, often vilified by Cuban state commentators as a tool of U.S. efforts to topple communist rule in Cuba, offered the unusually positive assessment of the impact of President Raul Castro's reforms in a report based on a field survey conducted on the island in June.
The June 1-22 survey, carried out without the cooperation of Cuban authorities, canvassed Cubans' perceptions about a raft of economic reforms formally approved at an April congress of Cuba's ruling Communist Party.
The most ground-breaking initiative, which had begun before the congress, widened self-employment and private business opportunities for tens of thousands of Cubans in a bid to soak up worker layoffs in the stagnant centralized state economy.
"The growth of a private sector is fueling individual initiative, personal autonomy and aspirations for greater freedom," the Freedom House special report said.
"Change is coming to Cuba," it added.
Freedom House said its team of researchers carried out 190 interviews with Cubans in six provinces.
The report said a majority of Cubans, 63 percent, had a favorable view of the ongoing government reforms. It cited a retired man who now sells ice cream as a self-employed worker saying: "Imagine, I can make more money selling ice cream than I ever did as an accountant for the government."
Freedom House said the reforms had generated "a growing sense of optimism" since the last field research conducted by the Washington-based organization in December 2010.
Sixty-three percent of those surveyed believed the government reforms would improve the cash-strapped Caribbean island's situation, compared with only 45 percent in December.
Reflecting budding expectations, 30 percent expected their families' economic situation to improve in the next 12 months, up from 17 percent six months previously.
But, 62 percent saw it remaining about the same.
Freedom House said the Cuban economic reform drive was "accompanied by a growing interest in civil liberties."
But the reforms have also caused insecurity and resentment among some Cubans. Freedom House said such feelings had also accompanied the shift from communism to market economies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
GOVERNMENT "FORCED BY NECESSITY"
"People now have autonomy that comes with their own business, they are now thinking about the future and thinking about more," Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House and one of the report's authors, told Reuters.
When asked what reforms they would like to see in Cuba, the largest number of those surveyed, 28 percent, said they wanted increased freedom of expression and freedom to travel. Eleven percent said they wanted better salaries and 8 percent desired economic improvement.
Five percent said they wanted a change in government.
Calingaert said the opinions reflected in the report signified a real change in ordinary Cubans' perceptions, rather than any intention on the Cuban government's part to alter or replace the island's one-party communist system.
"I don't think the Cuban government is becoming more enlightened, they were forced by economic necessity," he said.
"I can't remember the last time we said anything positive about them, but it certainly isn't our intention to praise the government," he added.
President Castro, 80, took over the Cuban leadership from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008. He has made clear the reforms he is introducing aim to improve the country's economy, not shift to western-style capitalism.
Freedom House said limited access to information remained a serious challenge, with the vast majority -- 92 percent -- of those surveyed saying they got their news from government sources. Only 8 percent got them from independent sources.
"The half century of communism still weighs down on many Cubans," the report said.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)