Saturday, December 29, 2007

Castro once longed to cling to power

Castro once longed to cling to power
Posted on Fri, Dec. 28, 2007
Associated Press Writer

Fidel Castro said Friday that as a young man he hoped to cling to power
but has long since outgrown the urge, the latest ambiguous statement
about his future at the helm of the country he has ruled for nearly five

In a letter read at Cuba's year-end session of parliament, the ailing
81-year-old clarified an assertion he made Dec. 17, that he "was not a
person clinging to power."

"Let me add that I was for a time, because of excessive youth and lack
of conscience," Castro wrote. "What made me change? Life itself."

By the time he led Cuba's 1959 revolution, he had already realized it
was his "duty to fight for (socialist) goals or die in combat," not to
stubbornly hold on to power, the letter said.

Castro's words drew a standing ovation from 509 lawmakers at the
legislature on Friday, where his chair sat empty next to his 76-year-old
brother, Raul Castro.

Castro has not said when - or if - he will step aside for good after
emergency intestinal surgery forced him to cede "provisional" authority
to his brother 17 months ago. He has not been seen in public since, but
remains the head of Cuba's Council of State, its highest governing body.

Castro has vowed not to stand in the way of younger leaders, but remains
on the ballot in parliamentary elections Jan. 20 - a candidacy the
Communist Party supports, Raul Castro said, suggesting his brother has
no plans to retire.

Re-election to parliament is essential for the older Castro to retain
his post atop the Council of State.

Also at the session, Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez announced
Cuba's economy had grown 7.5 percent in 2007, well short of official
forecasts for 10 percent growth. He predicted 8 percent growth in 2008.

Cuba includes state spending on free health care, education and food
rations when calculating gross domestic product - an uncommon
methodology that critics say inflated its growth figures for 2005 and
2006, which were 11.8 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.

Officials have spent months debating how to shape Cuba's economic
future, alleviate crippling housing and transportation shortages, and
boost agricultural output, Raul Castro told the assembly.

"We'd all like to move faster, but it's not always possible," he said.

"Those who occupy positions of leadership should know how to listen and
create an environment that is favorable for everyone to express
themselves with absolute freedom," he said. "Criticism, when used
appropriately, is essential to advancing."

Agricultural production rose nearly 25 percent in 2007, while the
industrial and transportation sectors grew about 8 percent each,
Rodriguez said. Exports of goods and services rose by a quarter, largely
because the island sends so many doctors to provide free medical care in
Venezuela in exchange for discounted oil.

But Osvaldo Martinez, head of the legislature's economic affairs
commission, said the island's sugar harvest - and a government push to
build new homes - had failed to meet expectations.

He blamed slowing growth on an "intense rise" in the cost of food and
fuel imports - the island spends $1.6 billion to import food each year -
and on falling tourism.

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