Raul Castro touts economic changes
By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
HAVANA -- Cuban President Raul Castro told legislators Saturday that the
future of the country's revolution is at stake as the government tries
to institute sweeping economic reforms, adding that the changes are
meant to strengthen socialism - not replace it.
Cuba has announced it will lay off a half-million workers from bloated
state-run enterprises, while simultaneously allowing more free
enterprise. It has also begun to scale back many of the subsidies Cubans
have come to rely on to compensate for salaries that average just $20 a
Castro has argued that the changes are needed to boost notoriously low
productivity, and that once that happens, living standards will begin to
rise. He urged his countrymen to embrace the changes, and warned that
anybody who doesn't will be left behind.
"The life of the revolution is in the balance," Castro said in a
two-hour speech closing out a twice-yearly meeting of the island's
national assembly. He repeated his contention that the dollop of limited
capitalism being injected into the economy does not mean the end of the
revolution's ideal to create an egalitarian utopia.
"The strategic economic changes are being made to sustain socialism," he
said. "They are to preserve and strengthen socialism, so as to make it
Still, Castro had a message to those who wonder if the Cuban government
is serious this time around - since past economic openings have fizzled.
He said the changes are "the result of profound meditations and
analysis, and we can assure you this time there will be no going back."
He urged Cubans not to listen to naysayers - particularly in the United
States - who have dismissed the economic changes as window-dressing.
"Our adversaries abroad, as we might expect, have challenged our every
step, first by calling the measures cosmetic and insufficient and now by
trying to confuse public opinion by prophesying a sure failure," he
said. "Sometimes it seems that their most heartfelt wishes (for Cuba's
failure) prevent them from seeing the reality."
He also warned his countrymen that they'll have to work in the new Cuba,
and can no longer rely on the state for handouts.
"Many of us Cubans confuse socialism with freebies and subsidies, and
equality with egalitarianism," the president said.
Castro also announced that a major Communist Party Congress where many
of the reforms are to be enshrined will be held April 16-19, with the
end date coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Cuba's victory in the
U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The government had previously said
only that it would be held in April.
Cuba's economy minister, who also spoke to the legislators, said the
government expected the economy to grow by 3.1 percent in 2011, up from
2.1 percent this year.
Revolutionary icon Fidel Castro was not present. Normally a ceremonial
seat is left empty for the former president, with a glass of water set
out in front of it. But the tradition was dispensed with this year.
Raul Castro also used the speech to blast Washington for its policies
toward Cuba, saying it has shown itself completely closed to better ties.
"There isn't the slightest willingness on the part of the United States
to change the policy against Cuba, not even to eliminate its most
irrational aspect," he said. "The U.S. policy on Cuba does not have an
ounce of credibility."
Washington has maintained an economic embargo on the communist-run
country for 48 years, and effectively bars most U.S. tourists from
visiting. Despite hopes by many that President Barack Obama would usher
in a new era in Cuban-U.S. relations, little has changed and the
countries remain enemies.
Two U.S. diplomatic cables from late 2009 recently released by WikiLeaks
indicate Raul Castro was perhaps hoping to change that, requesting
through a senior Spanish diplomat that a secret back channel be opened
between him and the White House. The overture was rejected, however, and
Castro was told that if he wanted to engage he should do so through
Cuban officials have expressed exasperation that Washington is not more
interested in talking, noting that the government has released many of
the island's dissidents and that they are reforming the economy to
inject more aspects of the free market.
A State Department spokesman on Thursday said Cuba had not made serious
efforts to change the country's political system - dominated since 1959
by Castro and his brother Fidel - or truly reform the economy.
Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.