Cuba parliament meets ahead of big party gathering
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA -- Cuba's parliament convened Wednesday to discuss the
government's make-or-break plans to retool the island's economy, the
first - and likely last - time legislators will get a chance to discuss
the changes ahead of a major Communist Party congress next year.
Cuba's 611-member National Assembly meets in full session just twice a
year, and then only briefly, to approve laws and discuss national
issues. The next session is due to take place next summer.
President Raul Castro was expected to address the lawmakers in one of
his few yearly speeches, though it was unclear whether his remarks would
come Wednesday or at the close of the session. Foreign journalists are
usually granted access to the opening of the assembly, but were not
invited this year, and the session was not broadcast live on state-run
Castro has announced plans to lay off half a million state workers, and
the government is already issuing licenses for a limited number of small
businesses in an effort to open the state-dominated economy to more
Castro has slashed some food subsidies, raised state-controlled oil and
utility prices and eliminated free lunches from many government
workplaces. He says the cash-strapped state simply cannot afford them
Cubans make just $20 a month, but in return get free health care and
education, and nearly free housing, utilities and transportation. Even
so, making ends meet is extremely difficult for most people on the island.
The government has said increased productivity is the key to improving
living conditions, a refrain repeated often in recent decades. Many
workers in turn blame the government for the low productivity, saying
many factories barely function due to bureaucracy, crippling
inefficiency and a lack of spare parts.
The government has begun distributing a 32-page list of guidelines for
next year's Communist Party Congress - the first such gathering since
1997. The guidelines are being discussed by Cubans in thousands of
meetings at workplaces and neighborhoods around the country.
In addition to allowing more private enterprise, the government has said
it wants to pay down the island's billions of dollars of foreign debt
and eventually scrap an unusual dual currency system.
Parliament chief Ricardo Alarcon said Friday that this week's assembly
session will allow legislators a chance to weigh in on the changes.
"We're going to talk about the economic plans. The main focus is going
to be to allow the delegates to debate the guidelines," he said.
Cuba's government bristles at suggestions the national parliament serves
as little more than a rubber stamp, noting that its members are elected
by the island's citizens, though campaigning is prohibited and
opposition candidates almost never run - let alone win seats.
The parliament, in turn, decides who will serve on the Council of State,
Cuba's supreme governing body.
The country has been run by Raul Castro and his brother Fidel since 1959.
Parliament is also likely to receive a year-end report from the economy
minister. Cuba's economy grew by just 1.4 percent in 2009, and the
results this year are likely to be similarly discouraging.
Cuba has slashed imports due to lack of funds, and has already announced
that harvests of key crops like sugar and rice were among the worst in
decades. Tourism revenue has been a bright spot, holding steady despite
the global economic slowdown.
Cuban economists have been warning that there are more hard times to come.
Joaquin Infanta, one of the island's main economists, told state-run
Juventud Rebelde newspaper on Sunday that Cubans should prepare to
tighten their belts because the economic overhaul will take time to bear
"It will have an impact in 2011 and 2012," he said. "The benefits of the
changes won't be seen until 2013."