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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Cuba to allow sale of private homes for first time since revolution


Cuba plans to allow people to buy and sell their homes for the first time since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, the BBC reports.

The decision came during the first congress held by the ruling Communist Party in 14 years.

No details were released on how the new property sales could work, but President Raul Castro is likely to elaborate on a wide-range of economic refroms during a closing speech today in Havana, The Miami Herald reports.

Cubans currently can could only pass on their homes to their children, or work out complicated, and often corrupt, swaps, the BBC reports.

While loosening the power on sale of property, Castro warns that the concentration of property would not be allowed.

Fidel Castro, 84, wrote in an editorial in the party newspaper Monday that he embraces the economic reforms. He no longer holds an official government or party post.

With Castro’s departure from a party position. the person elected to fill the No. 2 spot will be a major clue as to the direction of the country, The Miami Herald notes.

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Cuba to consider term limits for leaders: Castro


HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba will consider placing term limits on its leaders to assure new blood in the goverment, President Raul Castro said on Saturday in a speech kicking off a Communist Party congress on the island he and his brother led for more than five decades.

He said the government does not have “a reserve of well-trained replacements with sufficient experience and maturity” to replace the current leaders, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s.

“We have reached the conclusion that it is advisable to recommend limiting the time of service in high political and state positions to a maximum of two five-year terms,” he told 1,000 delegates at the congress, where economic reform is the main agenda item.

Castro, 79, said he would not be excluded from the limits, which will be discussed not at this congress, but a party conference next January.

Cuba’s geriatric leadership has been a topic of concern for a government intent on assuring the survival of Cuban socialism and new faces could be elected to high party positions during the congress.

Long-tenured officials have been a trademark of Cuba since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

Fidel Castro, who is 84 and did not attend the congress, ruled for 49 years and younger brother Raul Castro was defense minister for the same amount of time before taking over the presidency in 2008.

In the line of succession, first vice president Juan Machado Ventura is 80 and second vice president Ramiro Valdes is 77.

“It’s really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century,” Castro said.

“Although we kept trying to promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not always make the best choice,” he said.

Raul Castro was expected to be elected the party’s First Secretary, a post he has filled unofficially since Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006. Fidel Castro only recently disclosed that he had left the post.

NEW BLOOD

Closely watched for any signs of new blood will be the selections for Second Secretary, the post Raul Castro has held, and for the Central Committee and Political Bureau.

Due to the “laws of life,” this is likely the last party congress for Cuba’s aging leaders, President Castro has said.

He told the congress, the party’s first in 14 years, it would consider 311 proposed reforms during the four-day meeting, all aimed at remaking Cuba’s creaking, Soviet-style economy.

The changes will reduce the size of the state and expand the private sector, while maintaining central planning.

Many of the changes are already in place, including a program to slash more than a million jobs from state payrolls, cut subsidies and allow more self-employment.

He said more than 200,000 Cubans had taken out licenses for work for themselves since October.

Castro said more than 8 million Cubans had attended pre-congress meetings to give input on the reform guidelines, with a proposal to end Cuba’s universal monthly food ration getting the most comment.

Many Cubans fear the social and political consequences of ending the ration, or “libreta,” but Castro made it clear that eventually it will go only to those in need.

The ration has become “an unsupportable burden for the economy and a destimulus of work,” he said.

Before the congress convened, Cuba staged a military parade to mark the 50th anniversaries of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion and the declaration of Cuban socialism.

On April 16, 1961, fearing U.S. invasion was imminent, Fidel Castro finally told Cubans what the 1959 revolution he led from the Sierra Maestra mountains was all about.

“What the imperialists can’t forgive us … is that we have made a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States,” he proclaimed in speech paying tribute to victims of pre-invasion bombing raids the previous day.

On April 17, a force of CIA-trained Cuban exiles, backed by U.S. ships and planes, came ashore at the Bay of Pigs 100 miles southeast of Havana in a bloody attempt to spark a counter-revolution.

Castro rallied tens of thousands of troops and citizens to the battle and two days later declared victory as the attackers fled or were killed or captured in the botched invasion.

The triumph by tiny Cuba versus the superpower 90 miles away won Castro favor at home and abroad and is portrayed by Cuban leaders as one of their greatest accomplishments.

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Former President Jimmy Carter to visit Cuba


HAVANA (Reuters) – Former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn will visit Cuba next week to meet with President Raul Castro and discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, a Carter spokeswoman said on Friday.

The visit raised the possibility that Carter would get involved in the case of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing illegal Internet access to Cuban groups.

Carter was to arrive in Havana on Monday and leave on Wednesday in a brief trip “to learn about new economic policies and the upcoming (Communist) Party congress and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations,” said a statement from Carter spokeswoman Deanna Congileo.

He was to meet with President Castro and “other Cuban officials and citizens,” the statement said.

It said the trip was a follow-up to the Carters’ May 2002 visit to the island 90 miles from Florida and was a “private, non-governmental mission under the auspices of the not-for-profit Carter Center.”

During his time in the White House, Carter took steps to improve relations with Cuba, but the island ultimately added to his re-election woes when the Cuban government allowed 125,000 boat people to flee to the United States in 1980.

Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in his bid that year for a second four-year term.

There have been persistent rumors that Carter would step into the Gross case to seek his freedom and help remove a major obstacle to progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Gross, 61, has been jailed in Havana since December 2009 for his work in a U.S.-funded program promoting political change in Cuba.

Cuba views the program as part of longstanding U.S. efforts to undermine the government.

After a two-day trial in the Cuban capital, a panel of judges sentenced him to 15 years in jail for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”

Washington has said there will be no major attempts to improve relations with Cuba as long as Gross is held.

His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds because both their 26-year-old daughter and his 88-year-old mother have cancer.

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U.S. approves eight more airports for Cuba flights


HAVANA (Reuters) – The government has given permission to eight more airports to offer direct charter flights to and from Cuba in the latest small opening in the 49-year-long trade embargo against the communist island.

Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday Cuba flights would now be allowed from airports in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Previously, Cuba flights could be flown only from Miami, New York and Los Angeles. It was not yet known when flights would begin from the new cities.

President Barack Obama said in January Cuba charter service would be expanded. At the same time, he announced a loosening of restrictions for some groups on U.S. travel to Cuba.

The embargo, imposed since 1962 with the aim of toppling the communist government put in place after a 1959 revolution, prevents most Americans from going to Cuba. Only charter flights, not regular air service, are allowed to operate on U.S.-Cuba routes.

Obama has said he wants to recast U.S.-Cuba relations. He previously removed limits on Cuban American travel to the island located 90 miles from Florida and on the sending of remittances.

Cuban Americans have flooded into the country, packing the flights available and making Americans among the top nationalities numerically to visit Cuba.

Under Obama and President Raul Castro, the longtime ideological foes also have initiated talks on migration issues and the possible resumption of direct mail service.

Some Cuban American leaders and groups have opposed Obama’s measures, saying they help the Cuban government that was run by Fidel Castro for 49 years before his younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him in 2008.

Progress in the long-hostile relations came to a halt in December 2009 when Cuba arrested U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross for working in a U.S.-funded program to promote political change on the island.

The approval of the new airports comes as a Cuban court decides Gross’s fate following a two-day trial last week for what prosecutors said was his involvement in “subversive projects” to “defeat the Revolution.”

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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Don’t Expect Revolution in Cuba


Cuban dissidents and Cuban-American leaders have started to ask why Cubans haven’t followed the lead of oppressed populations in Egypt and Tunisia in overthrowing long-entrenched regimes. Wake Forest University Associate Professor of Political Science Peter Siavelis said he doesn’t expect to see demonstrations for democracy in the streets of Havana anytime soon.

Political and economic conditions in Cuba are more similar to North Korea than Egypt or even Libya, said Siavelis, an expert on Latin American politics. “The level of repression is much more systemic and substantial than in Egypt.”

The Communist government’s security apparatus is pervasive and quick to shut down any opposition or protests before they have a chance to grow, he said. Fidel and Raul Castro still have the support of the military and secret police. And, because the government controls the media and only the Communist Party elite has Internet access, many Cubans might not even know about the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, he said.

“Cuba is a small, insular place,” Siavelis said. “The government maintains a vice grip over any exchange of information. There is a real sense of isolation among the people, which has limited their ability to build any social capacity for change.”

There are some similarities between Cuba and Egypt, Siavelis said, including a long-standing oppressive regime, high unemployment, an increasingly younger  population, and a lack of opportunities for even the well educated.

Unlike Egypt, Cuba lacks any significant organized opposition, any private enterprise beyond a small number of self-employed people, and a free flow of information, both within the country and in news coming from other countries, he said. Few Cubans — primarily Communist Party leaders and members — even have access to a computer, and there are tight controls on the Internet, Siavelis said.

Cuba is one of the last centrally controlled economies in the world. The government employs about 85 percent of the population. President Raul Castro has made some economic reforms, such as allowing more workers to be self-employed, since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008.

Castro announced last year that about 20 percent of government workers — around one million people — would be laid off beginning this month. But on Monday, he announced that the layoffs have been postponed, perhaps with an eye toward avoiding any protests like the ones that sparked the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Siavelis said.

“Even though Raul has instituted some significant reforms — allowing for some private-sector ownership of businesses for instance — the economy is still in the hands of the government, which lessens any chance of political reform,” Siavelis said.

And there’s still the matter of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, which Siavelis believes hurts the cause of democracy because it limits the flow of people, goods and information into the country. “The government still waves the flag of national sovereignty and plays up U.S. hostilities. The Castro regime has outlasted presidents going back to Eisenhower, so you have to think at some point that it’s not working.”

Siavelis sees more similarities between Egypt and Venezuela than between Egypt and Cuba: an educated, urban, mobile population; unified opposition; access to outside media sources; and oil money being diverted to support other oppressive regimes, including Cuba.

Siavelis and other Cuba watchers will be watching closely when the Cuban Communist Party Congress convenes in Havana for the first time in 14 year next month. Siavelis expects decisions to be made then about the future of the country’s leadership. Fidel Castro is expected to resign as head of the Communist Party and to be succeeded by Raul Castro. Raul Castro has said that the congress will officially adopt reforms to modernize the Soviet-style economy, but how far those reforms will go remains to be seen.

Siavelis expects Cuba to follow the model of Vietnam and China: slowly embracing limited economic reforms, while maintaining tight political control. “But economic reform does unleash a demand for political reform, and then the question becomes, is the government able to repress that,” he said. “In Vietnam and China, because of the tremendous economic success, the government has been able to do that. But I don’t see Cuba being able to replicate that economic success.”

 

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As Cuba reforms, less blame for U.S. “blockade”


HAVANA (Reuters) – A touch of self-deprecating humor, along with prosperous allies, is helping Cuba shrug off a U.S. trade embargo it has blamed for decades for its economic woes and brandished as proof of Washington’s “inhumanity.”

Since taking over from his brother Fidel three years ago, President Raul Castro has poked fun at a Cuban tendency to blame all the country’s problems on the American sanctions, while focusing the government more on domestic problems.

“Without denying the negative implications the U.S. blockade has had, and still has, on Cuba’s economy and society, we cannot keep attributing all the country’s problems to it,” said Luis Suarez of Havana’s Higher Institute of International Relations.

He said he believed Castro wanted to keep emphasis on internal solutions that would not be conditioned by whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama lifted or eased the sanctions.

Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro overthrew pro-U.S. dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and installed a communist government 90 miles from Florida. Soon after, Washington imposed a trade ban as the bearded guerrilla fighter seized U.S. assets on the Caribbean’s biggest island.

For most of the five decades since, anger at the embargo was a key feature of Fidel Castro’s fierce speeches, and daily fodder in the government-run media. It was used to help explain economic privations on the island, especially after the collapse of long-time benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991.

But there has been a shift since his brother took over in 2008. Paint is fading on billboards that detail the human cost of the ‘bloqueo’ (blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba. At the annual May Day march, exhortations to work hard and be efficient are now more common than anti-imperialist slogans.

Then, in a speech to parliament in December, President Castro cracked a joke, saying a Vietnamese official had asked a colleague about why traditional coffee-grower Cuba was now buying the beverage from its Asian Communist ally.

“I don’t know what the Cuban replied. I’m sure he said ‘It’s because of the blockade,'” Castro said, to laughter.

The wisecrack echoes a long-standing joke on the island that blames everything on the embargo. Why didn’t you turn up for work? The blockade. Late for school? The blockade.

While the joke was old, it was surprising for many to hear it from the president.

“CAN’T BLAME THE BLOCKADE FOR EVERYTHING”

That is not to say Cuba has dropped its opposition to the embargo, which is condemned every year by almost all nations at the United Nations and mentioned in pro-Cuba campaigns.

But, in a Communist Party strategy document outlining plans for a major overhaul of the Cuban economy, the embargo receives just one perfunctory mention. Instead, attention is piled on domestic problems holding the nation back. For many on the streets of Havana, the change is welcome.

“We can’t blame the blockade for everything, sure it’s important, but there are many other internal problems that we are responsible for,” said Angel, a builder who asked that his last name not be used. He said there were shortages of construction materials because low-paid workers stole concrete and bricks to sell on the black market.

In part, Cuba can afford to direct less blame at the United States now because it has built strong commercial ties with allies such as China, Venezuela and Brazil, who ignore U.S. pressure and do business with the island. A doctors-for-oil deal with Venezuela provides billions of dollars in fuel and cash each year and lessens the need for U.S. trade.

The embargo has cost billions of dollars in lost trade. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year said the Castros had no interest in ending it because “they would lose all excuses” for the island’s woes.

U.S. President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions to the island for some U.S. citizens in an apparent response to Raul Castro’s decision to release a group of 52 political prisoners. Most have been freed but 11 are still in jail.

Obama has stopped short of lifting the travel ban for all U.S. citizens and says the embargo is used as leverage by the United States to press for democratic change in Cuba.

But an upsurge of Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island since 2009, under relaxed travel regulations, has helped undermine the trade sanctions in a small way.

Flashy smart phones, Ray Ban sunglasses and flat screen TVs all come over on flights from Miami, in some cases to feed a burgeoning black market in consumer goods.

In addition, an authorized exception in the embargo since 2000 allowed the United States to be Cuba’s top food provider for years, although U.S. food sales to the island fell sharply last year as Havana bought more from allies.

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