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Cuban lawmakers meet to consider Castro's reforms

Tuesday, July 24, 2012    

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HAVANA, Cuba (AP) — Cuba's National Assembly gathered yesterday for one of its twice-a-year legislative sessions, with the country's economic reform plans, a new tax system and budgetary issues front and centre on the agenda.

Islanders and Cuba-watchers will be seeing if the assembly takes any action on long-promised measures such as the easing of travel restrictions, increased private farming of state-controlled land or the approval of cooperative businesses.

Foreign journalists were not allowed access to the session in the capital's Palace of Conventions.

President Raul Castro's five-year plan to overhaul the economy has already legalized the sale of homes and cars and paved the way for hundreds of thousands of Cubans to go into business for themselves. But the pace of change has slowed this year with no major reforms since December.

Earlier this year, Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon said in an interview that a "radical and profound" change to the travel rules, which keep most Cubans from leaving the country, was imminent.

There has been no word since then about scrapping the much-loathed "tarjeta blanca," or white card, which islanders must apply for to travel abroad.

Promises to establish rules permitting midsize co-op businesses have likewise not yet come to fruition.

And last week the island's burgeoning small business class was dealt a blow with the low-key announcement of new, stiff tariffs on imported goods.

The entrepreneurs say that without access to wholesale markets, the only way they can supply their businesses is through "mules" who transit between Cuba and places such as Miami, Ecuador and Panama with their bags stuffed with food, spices, clothing, electronics, diapers and other items tough to come by on the island.

Yesterday, Cuban state media published an article seeking to quiet what it called the "numerous comments and anxieties" about the new customs duties.

It made no mention of the small businesses, however, and insisted that the measures were necessary because excess baggage is slowing down service at the airport, making it resemble a cargo terminal.

By 2015, Cuban officials are gunning to have removed 1 million workers from bloated state employment rolls and have transferred more than 40 per cent of the economy into private hands, compared with about 15 per cent today.

Economists say it's clear that Castro's changes are here to stay, but change is happening slowly and measures to stimulate the private sector come with other decisions throwing up obstacles in entrepreneurs' paths.

"It's very confusing because they are really sending mixed signals," said Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a Cuba analyst based in the Washington area.

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