Cuba's president calls for range of austerity measures
By Jeff Franks, Havana
CUBAN president Raul Castro called over the weekend for austerity
measures including fewer subsidies for workers and stricter management
to pull the country out of an economic morass aggravated this year by
three hurricanes and the global financial crisis.
He told a year-end meeting of the National Assembly that the government
would cut official trips abroad by 50% and eliminate programmes that
reward good workers with free vacation trips but cost the government $60
million a year.
"The accounts don't square up. You have to act with realism and adjust
the dreams to the true possibilities," said Castro, who officially
replaced his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro, as president in February.
"Two plus two always equals four, never five."
Castro implemented reforms when he took office, including opening the
sale of computers and cell phones to Cubans and allowing them to go to
hotels and stores previously reserved for foreigners.
But he said the country's economic problems would postpone some changes,
including a planned government restructuring.
Castro lamented the economic effects of hurricanes Gustav, Ike and
Paloma, which caused $10 billion in damages, and warned that no one can
tell how bad world economic problems will get.
Cuba's import costs have soared while prices for key exports such as
nickel have plunged, requiring the communist-run country to impose
greater fiscal discipline, said the 77-year-old Castro.
Other government officials told the assembly Cuba's budget deficit had
climbed to 6.7% of gross domestic product as the economy grew at a
slower-than-expected rate of 4.3% in 2008. They forecast 6% growth for 2009.
Before his speech, the assembly voted to raise the age at which workers
can retire with a government pension by five years, to 65 for men and 60
for women. Officials said the change was needed because Cuba's
population was aging rapidly due to a declining birth rate and immigration.