Cuba braces for sweeping economic changes

The reforms will see more than a million government jobs and subsidies slashed over the next couple of years.

    The reforms will encourage more private initiative and foreign investment in the Caribbean island's economy  [AFP]

    Cuba's communist party delegates have endorsed sweeping economic changes designed to turn around the country's struggling economy.

    The delegates also voted in a new party leadership at a historic summit on Monday.

    The reforms represent the biggest changes to Cuba's Soviet-style economy in decades in one of the world's last communist states.

    It will see more than a million government jobs and subsidies slashed over the next couple of years. They will also encourage more private initiative and foreign investment, giving more autonomy to state companies and reducing state spending.
    Under President Raul Castro's plan, one of the trademark features of the socialist system - the universal monthly food ration - will be gradually phased out for those who do not need it.
    Castro said on Saturday the ration given all Cubans since 1963 had become an "unsupportable burden" for the cash-strapped government trying to rationalise its finances.
    Cuba spends heavily on food imports, but hopes to increase food production by decentralising agriculture and increasing the role of private farmers.

    Home purchase
    The reforms also include a widely hoped-for call for allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes for the first time in many years, although it remains to be seen whether restrictive regulations will accompany the change.
    There is home ownership in Cuba, but at present houses can only be swapped, not sold, although under-the-table payments often are involved.
    While President Castro wants to ease the state's grip on the economy, the reforms will not make it disappear, as they call for a planned economy and keeping the country's principal means of production in state hands.

    The Caribbean island's highest political body selected new first and second secretaries, its central committee and powerful political bureau. But Cuban television said the results would not be disclosed until Tuesday's closing session.

    President Raul Castro is widely believed to be in line to take over as the party's first secretary from his brother Fidel. But all eyes are on the selection of the second position, which could signal the Castros' choice of an eventual successor.

    While the party congress does not have the power to enact the changes into law, the suggestions are expected to be acted upon quickly by the national assembly over the coming days and weeks.

    Officials called the gathering to set a new course for Cuba's economy and rejuvenate an aging political class largely made up of octogenarians who led Cuba's 1959 revolution.

    Earlier on Monday, an official photograph shot inside the spacious convention hall where the party confab was taking place showed Castro placing his vote inside a ballot box. "Candidacy for Members of the Central Committee," it read.

    A box that said "Vote for All" was checked on the ballot, indicating that Castro had approved an entire slate of candidates, though their names were not visible.

    Air of mystery

    Fidel and Raul Castro have held the top two spots in the communist party since its inception in 1965. But at this year's Sixth Party Congress, there is an air of mystery surrounding the leadership vote.

    In March, Fidel, 84, announced he had resigned as first secretary of the party when he ceded the presidency to Raul several years ago, although the party's website still lists him as its leader.

    In a speech opening the congress this weekend, Raul warned that a new generation was needed to take over when the old guard is gone.

    He even proposed term limits for officials including the president - a taboo subject during the half-century in which Cuba has been ruled by either him or his brother. The goal is to create opportunities for younger politicians to get experience, Raul said.

    The speech heightened speculation the job might go to someone such as Lazaro Exposito, the young party chief in Santiago de Cuba, or Marino Murillo, the former economy minister who has been put in charge of implementing the economic reforms.

    With change in the air, officials have repeatedly emphasised a message of continuity amid transition, and Fidel Castro echoed that theme in an essay published earlier Monday.

    "The new generation is being called upon to rectify and change without hesitation all that should be rectified and changed," Castro wrote.

    "Persisting in revolutionary principles is, in my judgment, the principal legacy we can leave them."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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