Cuba Suspends Communist Party Congress and Lowers Projection for Economy

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba suspended plans on Friday for a Communist Party congress and lowered its 2009 economic growth projection nearly a full percentage point as its economy struggled through what President Raúl Castro called a “very serious” crisis.

In a closed-door meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, officials agreed to indefinitely postpone the first congress since 1997, which was to have taken place by the end of this year.

The gathering was expected to chart Cuba’s political future after Mr. Castro and his brother Fidel are gone. Instead, the nation’s leaders will try to pull their country back from the economic brink.

Cuba lowered its 2009 growth estimate from 2.5 percent to 1.7 percent, but that figure was dubious given that it included state spending on free health care and education, the food Cubans receive with monthly ration booklets and a broad range of other social services.

The revision downward was Cuba’s second this year. In December, central planners said they thought the Cuban economy would grow by 6 percent in 2009.

The economic problems began last summer, with three hurricanes that caused more than $10 billion in damage. The situation has worsened with the onset of the global financial crisis and the recession.

Party congresses historically have been held roughly every five years to renew leadership and set major policies, but the government has broken with that tradition over the past decade.

Raúl Castro, 78, succeeded his brother as president more than 18 months ago, but Fidel Castro, 82, remains the leader of the Communist Party.

Information about the Central Committee meeting took up the entire front page of the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma. “Things are very serious and we are now analyzing them,” it quoted Raúl Castro as saying.

“The principal matter is the economy: what we have done and what we have to perfect and even eliminate as we are up against an imperative to make full accounts of what the country really has available, of what we have to live and for development,“ the newspaper quoted the president as saying.

It said authorities would postpone the sixth party congress until “this crucial phase” has been overcome. No date was given. – Travel to Cuba

Cuban economic crisis is so serious and says “Save or Die” the Only Alternatives


The Cuban economic crisis is so serious that the editor of the Communist Party daily Granma called it one of “save or die.”

“In the words of Central Bank President Francisco Soberon, the gravity of the problem before us is of such a nature that if politically we say ‘homeland or death,’ without an ounce of exaggeration we can say in the economic field ‘save or die,’ Lazaro Barredo said in an article.

Official media have warned Cubans in recent weeks of a deepening of the chronic poverty they have suffered since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had generously subsidized the communist regime in Havana.

The deputy minister of economy and planning, Julio Vazquez, warned on May 15 of the risk of a new period of power cuts in Cuba due to the world economic crisis and the island’s tendency to use too much fuel.

Cubans have suffered several prolonged periods of power cuts in the past decade, in some cases up to 10 hours a day.

“The nation demands a reduction of spending to avoid mortgaging ourselves,” Granma’s Barredo wrote in editorial.

Cuba’s already deteriorated economy has shriveled even more over the past year due to repercussions from the world financial crisis, three hurricanes in 2008 that caused losses of $10 billion, the drop in exports and the increase in the cost of imports.

In a previous article, the editor asked people “to look more towards the land” and change the agricultural practices on the island, which imports more than 80 percent of the food consumed by its 11.2 million inhabitants, even as half of Cuba’s arable land lies idle.

“A friend involved in that subject told me that our great paradox is that we have developed first-world science and yet have fourth-world agricultural output,” Barredo said.

State-run retailer Cimex warned Thursday that the remittances sent by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island are declining this year.

Cimex chief Eduardo Bencomo said Cuba has yet to see any impact from U.S. President Barack Obama’s elimination of restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the island and a slight easing of Washington’s 47-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba.

Bencomo acknowledged that there are some payments in arrears to foreign suppliers, but added that the Cuban government “will keep paying.” – Luxury vacations in Cuba

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Cuba on Monday for a two-day visit

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Cuba on Monday for a two-day visit to promote further economic ties with the island struggling to recover from three hurricanes and the ongoing effects of the global financial crisis.

No sooner had Hu landed than Cuban television said the two countries had already signed accords for China to continue purchasing nickel and sugar from Cuba and to provide agricultural products to the Caribbean country.

More agreements on economic, education and other matters were expected to be signed during a visit Cuba hailed as an indication of the close relations between the two Communist-run countries.

Hu, making his second trip to Cuba, was greeted at Havana’s airport by First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a dragon dance performed by Cuban youths, and some 50 members of the local Chinese community who waved Cuban and Chinese flags.

“My visit is aimed at increasing friendship and cooperation between our two nations, and working together with our Cuban comrades to build a promising future,” Hu said in a statement.

Hu offered “sincere good wishes that the Cuban people achieve continuous new advances in the construction of socialism.”

China is Cuba’s largest trading partner after Venezuela at $2.3 billion in 2007 and is looking to increase that number.

The Asian giant currently buys about 400,000 tons of sugar annually from Cuba and is estimated to get close to half of Cuba’s annual nickel production of 75,000 tons a year.

Due to damage from hurricanes Ike, Gustav and Paloma, which caused $10 billion in damage when they rampaged through the island this year, Cuba may be hard-pressed to promise more of either product in the near-term.

Chinese loans have helped Cuba rebound from the hardships that followed the 1991 collapse of its Cold War benefactor, the Soviet Union, and those loans are starting to come due.

Western diplomats said it was likely that restructuring those debts and future credits will be on the agenda as Hu meets with Cuban officials, including President Raul Castro.

Hu was scheduled on Tuesday to visit a school near Havana where hundreds of future Chinese diplomats, translators and functionaries are studying Spanish.

On Tuesday evening, he was to attend a ceremony where other accords with Cuba will be signed, then depart on Wednesday en route to Peru for an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

It was not known if Hu would meet with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who was in power when Hu visited in 2004.


For Cubans, US election issue is the embargo

HAVANA – When it comes to the U.S. presidential elections, the Cuban public doesn’t believe everything it’s told.

For more than a year, Cuban officials and the state-run media have been hammering away at the U.S. voting process, criticizing the influence that big money plays in electoral outcomes and dismissing both candidates along with their proposed policy toward the island.

No surprise there, given that Havana has spent the past 50 years battling a White House occupied by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Even retired and ailing Fidel Castro dedicated 11 different editorials since the presidential primaries began to belittling the U.S. elections, equating the process with the seriousness of a “Sunday afternoon card game” and accusing both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain of planning to starve the island into submission.

And other Cuban officials have echoed that disdain for anything American.

Recently parliament president Ricardo Alarcón advised voters looking for “real change” to cast their ballot for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader. Neither Obama nor McCain, predicted Alarcón, will transform much of anything.

But the Cuban public isn’t falling for the rhetoric.

Instead of just parroting the editorial line from state-run media, people are watching and weighing the U.S. election. They’re forming their own strong opinions instead of conforming to the prevailing official view.

Furthermore, many people believe that the outcome on Nov. 4 does matter. Some even argue that their own futures are at stake.

“I’m hoping that the American people will elect someone who will be open to changing relations with Cuba and allow free travel,” said Alejandro Sene, 22, who dances with the National Ballet of Cuba and dreams of performing on the U.S. stage. “We need the breathing space.”

Looking for a loosening of restrictions

Hands-down, the average Cuban prefers Obama to McCain – believing that he is the more likely candidate to loosen trade and travel restrictions while engaging the Cuban government.

In our own informal NBC News survey of 100 people in downtown Havana, 63 said they preferred Obama to McCain, two preferred McCain, 13 had no preference and 22 declined to answer.

“I hope Obama is open to dialogue and that he’s going to be able to sit down and have a frank discussion with his Cuban counterpart,” said Majel Reyes, a 32-year-old translator who works for American businessmen selling licensed food to the island.

“McCain pretty much stands for whatever Bush represents and that doesn’t work for us. We want someone to realize that the 40 years of policy with Cuba have been wrong,” said Reyes.

Obama has promised to allow unlimited Cuban-American family travel and remittances to the island. He has also promised to use “aggressive and principled bilateral diplomacy” with Havana with the hope of eventually normalizing relations and easing the U.S. embargo – if the Cuban government takes steps toward democracy, such as freeing political prisoners.

McCain has taken a more hard-line approach. Until the Cuban government releases political prisoners, grants basic freedoms and organizes internationally monitored elections, McCain has said, the economic embargo should stay in place and there should be no direct diplomacy with Cuban’s leaders.

In light of the candidates’ different stances, young Cubans seem particularly focused on the U.S. elections. “My circle of friends talk about this all the time,” said Lourdes Dos Santos, a 21-year-old college student. “We don’t know which candidate will be better for the U.S., but, when it comes to Cuba, we think Obama is the better choice.”

Like many, she’s putting her faith in Obama “since he’s willing to talk to us.”

With almost 73 percent of the island’s population under the age of 50, people have grown tired of the political war between the two countries.

“I was born in the middle of this conflict. When is it going to end?” asked Junia Reyes, a 38-year-old single mother and wedding photographer.

Like many here, her choice for Obama comes down to bread-and-butter issues: “Life would be easier if we traded with the Americans. Food and soap and clothing would be cheaper,” said Reyes.

Tough times just got tougher

The U.S. election is coming at a particularly vulnerable time for Cuba.

Twin hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the island in the late summer – destroying key crops, killing thousands of farm animals and causing an estimated $5 billion in damage. While the government is distributing the country’s food reserves, some 500,000 people are still living in government shelters and are relying on public handouts to survive.

With dwindling supplies diverted to the neediest areas, Havana grocery shelves are sparse and many farmers’ produce stands are closed. Government officials are warning that progressive food shortages could last at least six months.

Ovidio Sanchez, a shoemaker in Central Havana, has seen his income cut in half over the past several weeks. “People spend their money on food before they’ll pay to fix their shoes.”

Sanchez backs Obama because of his dream of Cuban law one day changing to allow him to open his own store with seed money from a brother living in Ohio. Obama has promised to ease restrictions on the amount of money Cuban Americans may send back home. Under current rules, people may send $300 every three months to immediate family.

Tired of isolation

From the Cuban vantage point, said Rev. Juan Ramon de la Paz, this election boils down to a single issue: “Who here supports George Bush?” Not many, he claimed, pointing to his parishioners at Havana’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

“Bush tightened the embargo. He cut us off from our families,” complained the pastor. “If McCain wins, people believe, it’ll be more of the same – more sanctions and more isolation. If Obama is elected, things will get better for us. It’s that simple.”

Retired government economist Ileana Yarza agrees and even wrote Obama a three-page letter expressing her far-away support for his candidacy. “He’s the only one I have faith in. I feel attached to him.”

After thanking Yarza for her interest, the “Obama for America” form letter urged her to get out and vote for the candidate on Nov. 4.

“If only I could,” she sighed.