Cuba says travel restrictions to remain in place
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA -- President Raul Castro on Friday put on ice highly-anticipated
plans to ease travel restrictions on Cubans, telling lawmakers the
nation would not be pressured into moving too fast and citing continued
aggression from the United States as the reason for his cautious approach.
Cuba has been awash in speculation the much-hated regulations, which
prevent most Cubans from leaving the island, might be lifted during
Friday's session of the National Assembly. But Castro said the time
still wasn't right, despite a year of free-market reforms that has seen
the Communist government legalize a real estate market and greatly
increase private business ownership.
"Some have been pressuring us to take the step ... as if we were talking
about something insignificant, and not the destiny of the revolution,"
Castro said, adding that those calling for an end to the travel
restrictions "are forgetting the exceptional circumstances under which
Cuba lives, encircled by the hostile policy ... of the U.S. government."
Castro criticized U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he was the 11th
American president since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel,
and appeared "not to understand" the sacrifices Cuba had made in its
struggle for independence and sovereignty, including the Bay of Pigs
invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Washington's 49-year
trade and travel embargo.
"Sometimes, he (Obama) gives the impression he has not even been
informed of this reality," Castro said, repeating his willingness to
normalize relations with the U.S. under the right conditions.
Castro also announced an amnesty for 2,900 prisoners ahead of next
year's visit by Pope Benedict XVI, but a senior official told the
Associated Press that jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross would not
be among those freed.
The Cuban president told legislators he still hoped to enact the travel
reforms, but did not say when. If hopes were high among islanders that
Friday would be the big day, Castro had only himself to blame.
At parliament's last session, in August, he announced that the
government was committed to ease the travel restrictions. He said the
measures were originally adopted because many who left in the years
after the revolution were a threat to the nascent government, including
people backed by the United States who sought its overthrow.
Castro said in August that most of those who leave now do so for
economic reasons and are not enemies. He said removing travel
restrictions would help "increase the nation's ties to the community of
emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of
Cubans had been clamoring for the elimination of the "tarjeta blanca,"
or exit visa, which the government requires of all seeking to travel
abroad, even for vacation. Many people are denied, particularly doctors,
scientists and military officials whose departure would be considered a
threat to the state.
"The need for permission to leave should never have been invented in the
first place," Victor Salgado, a 73-year-old retiree, told the Associated
Press ahead of Castro's speech. "They should have eliminated this long
ago. Why should I have to ask permission if I want to leave my country?"
Another Havana resident, Yamila Baez, said she was hoping the
restrictions would be scrapped as soon as possible.
"It isn't normal that one has to ask the government for its okay," she
said. "If you have the money to buy a ticket you should be able to go."
Castro's speech was the highlight of an otherwise humdrum parliament
session in which legislators approved a budget for 2012 and heard from
senior officials on the state of the economy.
Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo told lawmakers the government expected
economic growth to come in at 3.4 percent in 2012, a bit better than the
2.7 percent expected to be registered this year. Finance Minister Lina
Pedraza added that the government expects both revenue and costs to rise
in 2012, with the government running a deficit of about 3.8 percent.
Cuban officials also used the session to criticize Washington for its
trade and travel embargo, and to call on the U.S. to release four Cuban
agents still imprisoned there. A fifth left jail earlier this year, but
has been blocked from returning to Cuba until he completes parole.
Cuba is ending the first year of a drive by Castro to reform its
state-dominated economy. The government has allowed citizens to get
business licenses for nearly 200 approved jobs, and 355,000 have taken
them up on the offer. The state has also legalized a real estate market
for the first time in nearly half a century, begun extending bank
credits to entrepreneurs and those wishing to fix up their homes, and
removed restrictions on the sale of used cars.
A parallel effort to trim half a million workers from state payrolls