Angola: Defence Minister Highlights Relations Between Angola And Cuba


Luanda — The Angolan minister of Defence, Candido Pereira Van-Dunen, emphasized in Havana, Cuba, that the relations between Angola and Cuba are an example of solidarity, friendship and brotherhood.

Speaking in Havana during a visit to the headquarters of the local Ministry of Defence (MINFAR), Candido Pereira said that “our people have written with blood and sweat, glorious moments that resulted in the consolidation of freedom, national independence and sovereignty of Angola after a heroic battles against the enemies.”

According to the Angolan official, the two countries’ armies were side by side in the battles of Kifangondo, Kangamba, Kuito Kuanavale, Tchipa and others and showed to the world beautiful lessons of internationalism, solidarity and mutual respect that led to the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Namibia independence and the beginning of a new era of development in the southern Africa region.

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WikiLeaks: Coast Guard officer is key U.S. man in Havana


Kansas City: MIAMI — The most effective official in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana may well be a U.S. Coast Guard officer who’s technically a counter-drug specialist but is sometimes approached by the Cuban government for some back-channel diplomacy.

Cuban officials have contacted the Coast Guard officer on sensitive issues such as migration negotiations and Washington offers of aid in the wake of hurricanes, according to U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy.

Contact between the drug interdiction specialist and Cuba’s Interior Ministry is “generally viewed as one of the more fruitful and positive between the U.S. and Cuban governments,” one of the dispatches noted.

That doesn’t surprise retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Randy Beardsworth, who first proposed basing a drug interdiction specialist in Havana and negotiated the terms with Cuba in 1998, when he was the chief law enforcement officer for the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th District.

“Both sides have discreetly and quietly used this relationship to communicate. … It’s in our national interest to understand their bureaucracy. In chaos, who do we talk to?” Beardsworth said.

Five decades of U.S.-Cuba tensions have led both countries to impose tight controls on each other’s diplomats. The countries don’t have diplomatic relations and maintain only “interests sections” in each other’s capitals, formally as attachments to other countries’ embassies.

In the United States, Cuban officials aren’t allowed to travel more than 25 miles from their bases in Washington or at the United Nations in New York without prior approval. U.S. officials in Havana are banned from leaving the city, and can meet only with Cuban Foreign Ministry officials.

But the Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist often travels outside Havana on drug and migration-related trips accompanying officials from the Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, and the Interior Ministry (MININT), which is in charge of counter-narcotics, migration and domestic and foreign intelligence operations.

“They certainly had unique access, insights into people that we could not even see,” said James Cason, a career diplomat who was the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 2002 to 2005. Now retired, he recently was elected mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.

 

During a 2009 visit to a Cuban port for the repatriation of several would-be refugees whom the Coast Guard had intercepted at sea, a Foreign Ministry official gave the drug interdiction specialist “subtle insights” into Cuba’s approach to bilateral migration talks, which the Obama administration was about to restart after a break of several years, according to one dispatch.

The Foreign Ministry official, Armando Bencomo, told the drug interdiction specialist that the talks should focus on why Cubans want to leave the island and “would help both sides to develop a response to a potential mass migration scenario,” according to the cable.

The dispatch noted that Bencomo’s comments were a sign that Havana would use the meeting to “hammer” at the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Cuba has long criticized the policy, but the cables didn’t indicate whether Havana indeed attacked the policy at the immigration talks.

During a second 2009 trip to witness the repatriation of Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard, an unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the drug interdiction specialist that in his “personal opinion” Havana might reverse its rejections of U.S. aid after three hurricanes had devastated the island in 2008, another cable noted.

“Yet again, MINREX has utilized the DIS and the repatriation process as a forum” to float an idea past a U.S. official, the cable noted. That way, Cuba can pass a message “and still maintain its public image and propaganda campaign that lambaste the USG for its approach towards Cuba.” USG is short for United States government.

When Interior Ministry officials upbraided the drug interdiction specialist over an incident in 2009, it was taken as a sign that “MINREX, via MININT, is attempting to elicit a response from the USG … to maximize its interaction with USINT and the USG writ large,” another cable noted.

 

What’s more, Cuban officials meeting with the drug interdiction specialist referred to one of the hot-button issues between the countries: a mass exodus of Cubans like the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the so-called “Balsero Crisis” of 1994.

According to one cable after the 2008 hurricanes, a colonel in the Interior Ministry’s Border Guard Troops asked the drug interdiction specialist whether the U.S. government was “planning an operation,” understood as asking whether Washington was concerned about a possible mass exodus by desperate hurricane victims.

The comment raised eyebrows because the colonel “inadvertently suggested himself that there was a fear on the part of the (Border Guard) that at least an increase in Cuban migration numbers was possible,” the cable added.

Cuban officials also use the Coast Guard’s man in Havana to voice complaints about U.S. policies and practices.

One cable noted that a top Interior Ministry counter-drug official had complained that U.S. cooperation on drug interdictions was “often one-sided” and that Cuba wanted to work more closely with U.S. officials in sharing information about trafficking in the region.

Another reported in 2009 that the drug interdiction specialist had received a tongue-lashing from five top Interior Ministry officers at a meeting to discuss an alleged U.S. Coast Guard violation of Cuban waters during the emergency assistance of a U.S.-registered sailboat.

The Cuban officers “questioned whether the DIS has the necessary influence with his bosses at USCG District Seven (headquartered in Miami Beach) to mitigate these kinds of incidents,” the cable added.

Beardsworth said Cuban agents at times also “fooled with” the Havana homes of Coast Guard officers who’d “poked their nose into areas the Cubans considered were not appropriate.” He gave no details, but U.S. diplomats in Cuba have complained of obvious burglaries in which food or worse was left on tables so that the occupants would know that someone had been inside.

But Beardsworth said the advantages far outweighed any problems with stationing a U.S. Coast Guard officer in Havana, which he proposed as a “confidence-building measure” between the countries after a year of graduate studies at Harvard in 1995.

The first drug interdiction specialist was sent to Cuba around 1998, he recalled, and five or six Coast Guard officers — all men — now have completed assignments of two or three years in Havana. All remain on active duty and aren’t permitted to comment on their Cuba experiences.

Cason recalled that while the drug interdiction specialist got to attend the repatriations of interdicted Cuban rafters about once a week and to travel around Cuba on drug-related trips with Interior Ministry officials, other U.S. diplomats could meet no one in the government other than the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Dagoberto Rodriguez.

Cason said he thought the Cuban government favored the drug interdiction specialist’s relations with its Interior Ministry because it wanted to establish “a military-to-military” relationship, thinking that professional solders could understand each other better and lessen the risks of a crisis.

No doubt the Cuban government was “also trying to penetrate our side” — recruit the Coast Guard officers as spies — Cason added, though the Coast Guard was aware of that and “picked their best people, really sharp.”

The Cubans “always said they just wanted someone to talk to,” Cason said. “But I always asked why not the USINT? That’s why we were there, to talk to them.”

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Restoring the Cuban City with a French Colonial Air


CIENFUEGOS, Cuba, Aug 5 (IPS) – The city of Cienfuegos, known in Cuba as the “Pearl of the South”, is unique for its spotless cleanliness, the orderly grid pattern of its streets, its 19th century architecture and its air of “Grande Dame” elegance. Now its past splendours, ravaged by time or left to deteriorate because of economic difficulties, are being restored.

“If you see anyone throwing trash in the streets, you can be sure it’s a stranger from out of town,” a woman born and raised in Cienfuegos told IPS, with a touch of civic pride and ownership.

Located 250 km southeast of Havana, the city was founded by French settlers in 1819, and its historic centre was declared a World Cultural Heritage site in 2005 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Gaining acceptance on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity list was not an easy task, said Irán Millán, an architect who has worked for the city for more than three decades. “At the outset people assumed that only ancient cities counted as heritage, not those as modern as Cienfuegos,” he told IPS.

The small but tenacious team responsible for protecting cultural heritage in Cienfuegos got their first taste of victory in 1995, when the city’s historic centre was declared a national monument. “We kept going in the conviction that our contemporary heritage had value, and we persuaded the authorities to appreciate that,” he said.

Millán has been the city conservator for Cienfuegos since the office for heritage restoration was opened in 2005. He said the fact that most of his fellow architects trained in Italy influenced Cuba’s policy of preserving buildings without evicting the people who live in them, so that the residents reap the benefits of urban renewal.

“We cannot remove the population from the historic centre; that would take all the life and joy out of it,” he said. The strategy puts more pressure on the meagre resources available, and sometimes only façades of buildings have actually been painted in the “cuarterías” (tenements) in the heritage zone, where hundreds of families live in crowded conditions, all looking forward to a better life.

The policy of the office is for businesses and organisations in the historic centre to contribute the funds they internally allocate to conservation, towards the heritage restoration and development plans designed by this authority.

“If a firm wants to renovate premises, we give them the go-ahead on condition that they cooperate with the heritage office’s plans, and undertake the repair and renewal of the sidewalk and specified housing units in the vicinity,” he explained.

So far, resources have permitted the restoration of 46 percent of the 70-hectare World Heritage zone and 47 percent of the 90-hectare national monument area. Improvements have been made to 1,480 homes and 146 workplaces, and 45 “cuarterías” have been partially or totally renovated.

Coordinated efforts are helping to realise the “dream project” of pedestrianising Street 29, previously called Santa Isabel Street, and restoring it “just like it used to be,” said Millán. This thoroughfare connects the colonial-era pier with Martí Park, a large open space at the centre of the city street grid, named for Cuban national hero José Martí, that was once the “plaza de armas” or military drilling ground.

The remodelling of Street 29 will provide space for self-employed people engaged in private enterprise, a growing sector in Cuba as the state drastically reduces its payroll, on the rationale that local people will have a vested interest in looking after public property.

The project also includes an art gallery, pharmacy and coffee shop, to be ready when the newly-restored pedestrian street is completed.

Eighteen families living in a “cuartería” close to the coffee shop are also pitching in with a will. “We are working for better conditions. We will have more space and our walls and roofing will be solid, and we will have separate water pipes supplying each household,” Oslayda Miranda, who lives with her married son and two grandchildren, told IPS.

According to Miranda, at least one member of each of the families must work directly on the reconstruction, on contract to the Cuban government, which supplies the building materials, including bathroom fittings. “But in fact we all work: I help my son do the plastering, and I also do the cooking,” she stressed.

“It’s very hard work and we still have a lot to do. What is being rescued here is human beings, rather than bricks and mortar,” said Millán, the city conservator.

Cienfuegos contains architectural gems like the Thomas Terry theatre, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the government palace, and the Lion House, so called because of its imposing feline statues.

And then there is the Paseo del Prado, leading from the town entrance to the Malecón – the seaside promenade around the bay – which after sundown is a popular spot for lovers’ trysts. Above the normally calm waters of Cienfuegos bay, the fortress of Our Lady of the Angels, erected for protection against Caribbean pirates, stands guard over the city.

“Recovering our heritage is not the same thing as worshipping the past. We are committed to improving people’s quality of life,” said Millán. This has awakened interest in conservation and restoration work in Cienfuegos, he said.

Millán said international development aid provides complementary funding that contributes decisively to the city’s development plan.

The office of heritage and restoration relies on state funding for its work, so the projects department has developed its own strategies to channel “the support of culture-loving organisations and individuals who want to help raise our people’s standard of living, whether or not they identify politically with Cuba,” he said.

Participating organisations include the Franco-Cuban Cooperation Association, the Canadian embassy, the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). According to Millán, the Franco-Cuban Cooperation Association has adopted the skilled trades school as a key project.

The trades school, which is being rebuilt by its own students, trains young people in the special skills needed for the heritage office’s restoration work.

Millán said the school is a shining example of harmonious coordination of the efforts of different individuals and groups to employ young people who were neither working nor studying and reintegrate them into society, with guaranteed jobs at the end of the process. In Millán’s view, “That is the highest accomplishment of all, in addition to getting the students to appreciate and relate to their local heritage,” he said.

The official hopes his office will qualify as a “special treatment unit” in next year’s budget, with greater financial control and independence that would confer more stability and sustainability on its projects.

If funding is placed on a more favourable footing, the Fernandina Radio station, run by the heritage restoration office, might enjoy some expansion. At the moment reception of the radio signal is limited to the main shopping avenue in Cienfuegos. The station airs publicity and news about the historic centre for one hour every morning, and once an hour it plays music by Cuban singer-songwriter Benny Moré (1919-1963).

 

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Castro: Frozen assets to be released this year


Cuba Standard:

Cuba will free the remainder of hard-currency assets owned by foreign companies that have been held back in national bank accounts
since 2008, President Raúl Castro said in his closing speech after the National Assembly’s summer session.

A partial restructuring of foreign debt with Cuba’s main lenders has helped “reduce hold-backs of transfers abroad and put us in conditions to approve that they will be lifted for good before the current year ends,” Castro said, adding that a “tense situation” continues to affect the country’s external finances. ” We will persist in gradually recovering the international credibility of the Cuban economy.”

Cuba has not published comprehensive data about its foreign debt since 2007.

Hit by extensive hurricane damage, higher oil and food prices, and dropping tourism, nickel and sugar revenues in 2008, the government faced a cash crunch that has been gradually improving over the past two years, as Cuba cut back spending and imports, and exports have been rising.

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For Cuba, a real-estate revolution


The New York Times:

José is an eager almost-entrepreneur with big plans for Cuban real estate. Right now he works illegally on trades, linking families that want to swap homes and pay a little extra for an upgrade.

But when Cuba legalizes buying and selling by the end of the year — as the government promised again this week — José and many others expect a cascade of changes: higher prices, mass relocation, property taxes and a flood of money from Cubans in the United States and throughout the world.

“There’s going to be huge demand,” said José, 36, who declined to give his last name. “It’s been prohibited for so long.”

Private property is the nucleus of capitalism, so the plan to legitimize it in Cuba, a country of slogans such as “socialism or death,” strikes many Cubans as jaw-dropping. Indeed, most people expect onerous regulations and, already, the plan outlined by the state media would suppress the market by limiting Cubans to one home or apartment and requiring full-time residency.

Yet even with state control, experts say, property sales could transform Cuba more than any of the economic changes announced by President Raúl Castro’s government, some of which were outlined in the National Assembly on Monday.

Compared with the changes already passed — more self-employment and cellphone ownership — or proposed — car sales and looser emigration rules — “nothing is as big as this,” said Philip Peters, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

Back to the old days

The opportunities for profits and loans would be far larger than what Cuba’s small businesses offer, experts say, potentially creating the disparities of wealth that have accompanied property ownership in places such as Eastern Europe and China.

Havana in particular may be in for a move back in time, to when it was a city more segregated by class.

“There will be a huge rearrangement,” said Mario Coyula, Havana’s director of urbanism and architecture in the ’70s and ’80s. “Gentrification will happen.”

Broader effects could follow. Sales would encourage much-needed renovation, creating jobs. Banking would expand because, under newly announced rules, payments would come from buyers’ accounts.

Meanwhile, the government, which owns all property now, would hand over homes and apartments to their occupants in exchange for taxes on sales, impossible in the current swapping market where money passes under the table.

And then there is the role of Cuban emigrants. While the plan seems to prohibit foreign ownership, Cuban Americans could take advantage of Obama administration rules letting them send as much money as they like to relatives on the island, fueling purchases and giving them a stake in Cuba’s economic success.

“That is politically an extremely powerful development,” Peters said, adding that it could spur policy changes by both nations.

Unique complications

The rate of change, however, will likely depend on complications peculiar to Cuba. The so-called Pearl of the Antilles struggled with poor housing even before the 1959 revolution, but deterioration, rigid rules and creative workarounds have created today’s warren of oddities.

There are no vacancies in Havana, Coyula, the urban designer, pointed out. Every dwelling has someone living in it. Most Cubans are essentially stuck where they are.

On the waterfront of central Havana, children peek out from buildings that should be condemned, with a third of the facades missing.

The housing stock, already run down before the revolution, continued to deteriorate, the U.S. embargo choked off the supply of building materials, and new construction failed to keep pace with demand.

Empty lots dot the capital’s seaside Malecon Boulevard as once-stately mansions regularly collapse after heavy rains. Many of those still standing are merely facades or are propped up by scaffolding and wooden beams.

Blocks inland, Cubans such as Elena Acea have subdivided apartments to Alice in Wonderland proportions. Her two-bedroom is now a four-bedroom, with a plywood mezzanine where two stepsons live one atop another, barely able to stand in their own rooms.

Like many Cubans, she hopes to move: trade her apartment for three smaller places so the elder son, 29, can start a family.

“He’s getting married,” she said. “He has to move out.”

Despite reassurances — on Monday, Marino Murillo, the country’s economic czar, said selling would not need government approval — Acea and many neighbors seemed wary of the government’s promise to let go. Some Cubans expect rules forcing buyers to hold properties for five or 10 years. Others say the government will make it hard to take profits off the island, through exorbitant taxes or limits on currency exchange.

Still more, like Ernesto Benítez, 37, an artist, cannot imagine a real open market.

“They’re going to set one price, per square foot, and that’s it,” he said.

He added, Cubans would respond by setting their own prices, and that might be enough to stimulate movement, he said.

He hopes so. Benítez and the woman he has lived with for nearly a decade broke up 18 months ago. Each is dating someone new and there are nights, they admit, that get a little awkward. Only a narrow bathroom separates their bedrooms.

Katia González, 48, whose parents passed down her apartment before they died (which Cuba allows), said she would consider selling for a fair price. What did she think her two-bedroom just blocks from the ocean, in Havana’s best neighborhood, could command?

“Oh, $25,000,” she said. “A little more, maybe $30,000.”

In Miami, a similar apartment might cost nearly 10 times that, which is what many Cuban Americans seem to be thinking. José and several other brokers in Havana said real-estate transactions on the black market routinely involved money from Cubans overseas, especially Florida.

“There’s always money coming in from Miami,” said Gerardo, a broker who withheld his full name. “The Cuban in Miami buys a house for his cousin in Cuba, and when he comes here in the summer for a couple of months, he stays in that house.”

Murky rules

Technically, this is a violation of the trade embargo that began under President Eisenhower. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, deals or investments with Cubans are prohibited. Receiving money or profit from Cuba is also illegal.

But the rules are muddy in practice. Family transactions — mainly involving recent emigrants — seem to be expanding with a wink from the Obama administration.

Supporting private business is now encouraged under the general license that lets Cuban Americans visit relatives, and in 2009, President Obama established a policy of letting Cuban Americans visit the island whenever they want and send unlimited remittances to relatives.

Beyond that, enforcement against individuals, as opposed to businesses, is practically nonexistent. In the past 18 months, one American was penalized for violating the sanctions, with a fine of $525, according to a congressional report published last month.

One thing that isn’t expected to be a topic of debate in Cuba is exile claims on homes.

Over time, said Antonio Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment, families that occupied the homes of Cubans who left the island have essentially become the owners of the dwellings.

Experts say the Cuban diaspora has begun to create a tiered social system in Cuba. Cuban emigrants sent back about $1 billion in remittances last year, studies show, with an increasing proportion of that money financing budding capitalists in need of pizza ovens or other equipment to work privately. Homes would simply expand the bond, experts say, and offers are already arriving.

Ilda, 69, lives alone in a five-bedroom, ninth-floor apartment with views of the sea. A visiting Cuban-American couple — “chic, very well dressed,” she said — recently asked to buy her apartment for $150,000, with little care for any bans on foreign ownership.

“I told them I can’t,” Ilda said. “We’re waiting for the law.”

Even when the law changes, she said, she would prefer a “permuta,” a trade, because she would be guaranteed a place to live.

Nowhere to go

Her fear of having nowhere to go is common. One recent study, by Sergio Díaz-Briquets, a Washington-based demography expert, found that Cuba has a housing deficit of 1.6 million units. The government says the number is closer to 500,000, still a serious problem.

Coyula said money from sales might not be enough to fix the shortage, since there is almost no construction industry, permitting process or materials to build with.

Other thorny issues might have to be revisited.

“Evictions haven’t happened here since 1939,” he said. “There’s a law forbidding them.”

For now, Cubans are trying to grasp basic details. How will the mortgage system work? How high will taxes be? What’s a fair price?

There is even a question of how buyers and sellers will come together.

Classified listings are illegal in Cuba, which explains why brokers such as José, known as corredores, spend their days moving through open-air bazaars with notebooks listing apartments offered or desired.

He already has two employees, and when the new law arrives, whether his services are legal or not, he expects to hire more.

“We have to get coordinated,” he said. “It’s coming.”

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Leahy lifts hold on democracy funds for Cuba


Miami Herald:

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont on Tuesday lifted the final hold on the last part of a $20 million allocation for Cuba democracy programs, ending a bitter three-month fight over the programs’ effectiveness.

The funds are designed to help more than a dozen types of non-government activities, from youth groups to training on computers, communications and private enterprise and support for the communist-ruled country’s lesbian and gay community.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees State Department spending, announced that he freed the final $14 million of the $20 million package after the Department and its Agency for International Development answered his questions about human rights and civil society initiatives in Cuba.

But his statement made it clear he remains concerned about the programs, repeatedly criticized since their start in 1996 as wasteful and inefficient and managing only to provoke Havana into cracking down on dissidents who receive the U.S. assistance.

“The United States has a strong interest in helping the Cuban people improve their lives and protect their rights,” the statement said.  “We also have a responsibility to know how U.S. taxpayer dollars are used and whether programs are effective.”

“For too long this program has been carried out in ways that have been neither transparent nor accountable, and with no way to measure results.  That needs to change, and getting answers about the way these funds are spent is a constructive first step,” he added.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, put a “hold” on the full $20 million April 1 as his committee challenged the usefulness and transparency of the programs. Leahy added his own hold shortly afterward.

Kerry lifted his hold last week, after winning a promise by State and USAID officials that they would send his committee a detailed report on questions such as the programs’ effectiveness and how many Cubans they benefit.

Leahy let it be known on the same day that he had no issues with $6 million of the $20 million but needed more information on the rest.

The two senators expressed private concerns last week that freeing the funds might anger Cuban authorities amid speculation that they could release Alan P. Gross, a USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana.

The 62-year-old development specialist from Potomac, Md., was arrested in 2009 for delivering a satellite telephone to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community so that it could access the Internet independently of Cuban government controls.

Cuba’s highest court heard his appeal last month, and U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed the hope that he would be released soon on humanitarian grounds because his wife, daughter and mother all face health problems

Cuba revising travel policies: Raul Castro


HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba will revise its travel and immigration rules as part of a broader reform of its economic and social policies, Cuban President Raul Castro said on Monday.

He spoke after the Cuban Parliament approved Communist Party proposals to overhaul the country’s stagnating, state-dominated economy and lift some restrictions on citizens’ personal lives.

“The country is modifying decisions that played a role at a certain moment and unnecessarily were never changed,” the Prensa Latina news agency quoted Castro as stating.

“Today the overwhelming majority of Cuban immigrants leave for economic reasons and almost all of them maintain their love for family and the country where they were born,” Castro said.

He said rules still in place dated back to the earlier years of the revolution when immigration was largely political and manipulated by the United States.

It was not immediately clear what the changes in travel and immigration policy would entail. But Cuban regulations, which make it difficult and expensive to travel or move abroad, have long been criticized by local residents and human rights groups.

The economic reform plan approved by the National Assembly includes more than 300 points. It was first approved at a Communist Party Congress in April and would definitively do away with the decades-old paternalistic society built under Fidel Castro’s leadership.

Foreign journalists were not invited to the parliamentary meeting addressed by Castro. But he was paraphrased by state-run media as urging lawmakers and all citizens to adjust to the new times and model he is pushing by shedding bureaucratic habits.

“President Raul Castro said today that a change in mentality is indispensable to put into practice the changes the country needs,” Prensa Latina said.

ECONOMY SEEN IMPROVING

The measures, some already being implemented, were improving economic performance, Castro said, with growth at 1.9 percent in the first half of 2011 and on track toward 2.9 percent for the year, compared with 2.1 percent in 2010.

The reforms, to be implemented over five years, slash more than a million government jobs and reduce the state’s role in sectors such as agriculture, retail services, transportation and construction in favor of private small businesses, cooperatives and leasing.

Larger state companies are freed up to make more of their own decisions and take into account market forces, while regulations that prohibit normal personal affairs such as buying and selling cars and homes would be loosened.

At the same time state subsidies for everything from food to utilities will be gradually eliminated and state wages, which average the equivalent of $18 per month, increased.

The state has monopolized more than 90 percent of all economic activity and employed a similar percentage of the labor force since the earliest days of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

The country, which faces a stiff U.S. trade embargo, has yet to fully emerge from a two-decades-old economic crisis sparked by the demise of former benefactor the Soviet Union.

Castro has pushed for a new economic and social model based on individual effort and reward with targeted welfare, to replace one based on collective labor and consumption.

Raul Castro first replaced his ailing brother Fidel five years ago and then became president in 2008.

The single chamber parliament meets two times a year for only a few days and just about all of its members hold positions in, or are members of, the Communist Party, the only legal political organization in the country.

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