HAVANA TIMES, April 6 (IPS) — Cuban President Raul Castro has confirmed the worst economic forecasts for his country, in an international context that could become even more complicated following his refusal to address demands on human rights issues.
Possibly confirming the view of those who observe that in Cuba every crisis is followed by more entrenched defensiveness, Castro stated categorically that his government will “never give in to blackmail by any country or group of countries, no matter how powerful, whatever happens,” in response to pressure from the United States and European Union governments.
“We have the right to defend ourselves. If they try to corner us, we will take cover, first of all with truth and principles,” he added, referring to what he called the “massive campaign to discredit Cuba,” after the death of a prisoner who went on a prolonged hunger strike.
Castro referred, without naming him, to Orlando Zapata, who died Feb. 23 after refusing food for 85 days in prison, according to dissident sectors in pursuit of recognition as a prisoner of conscience. He had been adopted as such by Amnesty International.
President Castro declared that Zapata was serving a prison sentence for 14 common crimes, and had taken on the image of a “political dissident” through oft-repeated lies and because he wanted to receive economic support from abroad. He was incited to go on a hunger strike and make absurd demands, Castro said.
As for Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident who went on hunger strike on Feb. 24 at his home in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, Castro said – again without specifically naming him – that in spite of all the slander this man was not in prison, although he had served time for common crimes in the past.
“As in the previous case, everything is being done to save his life; but if he does not modify his self-destructive behavior, he will be responsible, together with his sponsors, for the outcome we do not wish for,” said Castro, who railed at the “double standards” of those in Europe who remain silent about rights violations committed by the United States.
Prelude to Long Awaited Communist Party Congress
President Castro spoke Sunday, at the close of the Ninth Congress of the Young Communists League (UJC), the governing Cuban Communist Party’s (PCC) youth organization comprising some 600,000 members.
The event was widely expected to herald the Sixth PCC Congress, postponed since 2002.
But the Cuban president did not mention a probable date for the Sixth Congress, which is regarded as crucial in the country’s present circumstances, or for the National Conference that should precede it, which is empowered to add new members to the PCC’s leading bodies, and to dismiss others as it sees fit.
The first secretary of the PCC – the only political party in Cuba – is Fidel Castro, the historic leader of the Cuban revolution, whose illness in July 2006 led him to step down as president in 2008.
In February 2008, parliament elected Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, to the office of president. Raúl is also second secretary of the PCC.
The updating of the economic model is ongoing “in order to set the foundations of the irreversibility of Cuban socialism and its development,” President Castro told the UJC Congress, while recognizing that “some comrades sometimes get impatient and wish for immediate changes in many areas.
“We understand such concerns that, generally, stem from ignorance of the magnitude of the work ahead of us, of its depth and of the complexity of the interrelations between the different elements that make society work and that are to be modified,” he said.
Economists consulted by IPS said the changes made so far, some of them in institutional circles and others of a more structural nature, do not answer all the country’s needs, nor do they represent a substantive change in the economic model.
The pending changes eagerly awaited by Cubans range from migration reforms to eliminate the obligatory permits Cuban residents need to travel abroad, to the elimination of the dual currency, and free purchases and sales of houses and cars.
“We cannot allow haste or improvisation in the solution of a problem to lead to a greater one. In regard to issues that are strategic for the life of the entire nation, we cannot let ourselves be driven by emotion or lose sight of the necessary comprehensiveness of our actions,” Castro said.
He described the economic situation as extremely complex, and said “the economic battle is the main task and focus of the ideological work of party members, because the sustainability and the preservation of our social system depend on it.”
Among the problems weighing down the Cuban economy, Castro mentioned inadequate agricultural production, corruption, and lack of labor power in areas directly linked to production, while there are surplus workers in other sectors.
“Without a sound and dynamic economy and without the removal of superfluous expenses and waste, it will not be possible to improve the living standards of the population, nor to preserve and improve the high levels of education and healthcare guaranteed to every citizen free of charge,” he said.
Cuba is also experiencing difficulty in securing international financing, a problem that has been exacerbated by the fall in prices of its main export products, which forced the island to cut back imports by 37 percent in 2009, among other adjustments.