Friday, July 11, 2008

Raul Castro: Communism is not egalitarianism


Raul Castro: Communism is not egalitarianism

By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer 51 minutes ago

President Raul Castro warned Cubans on Friday to prepare for a "realistic" brand of communism that is economically viable and does away with excessive state subsidies designed to promote equality on the island.

Addressing Cuba's parliament in its first session since lawmakers selected him to succeed his older brother Fidel in February, Raul Castro announced no major reforms, but suggested that global economic turbulence could lead to further belt-tightening on the island.

"Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income," the 77-year-old president said in a speech that was taped and later aired on national television. "Equality is not egalitarianism."

That sentiment marks a break with his brother, who spent decades saying Cuba was building an egalitarian society. But the new president nevertheless ended by proclaiming he had "learned everything" from Fidel, drawing a standing ovation.

Since succeeding his brother, Raul Castro has authorized Cubans to legally purchase computers, stay in luxury hotels and obtain cell phones in their own names. His government has raised some salaries and done away with wage limits, allowing state workers to earn more for better performance.

Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament convenes for only for a few hours twice a year and rumors were rampant that Friday's session would see an easing of restrictions on travel abroad or a strengthening of wages by increasing the value of the peso, worth about 21-1 against the U.S. dollar.

The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and the average salary is just 408 pesos per month, US$19.50, though most Cubans get free housing, health care, education and ration cards that cover basic food needs.

Castro said that in "the matter of salaries, we'd all like to go faster, but it's necessary for us to act with realism."

"The situation could even get worse," he said of the global economy. "We will continue to do what's within our reach so that a series of adversities have less effect on our people, but some impact is inevitable in certain products and sectors."

Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said this week that skyrocketing global food and oil prices would cause "inevitable adjustments and restrictions" for Cuba's economy.

Castro said he supported a proposal to gradually push back the retirement age five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. The move, which parliament plans to vote on in December, is part of an effort to soften the blow of a disproportionately elderly work force.

Castro acknowledged shortages that plague Cubans, but said "we have to be conscious that each increase in salary that is approved or price that is subsidized adhere to economic reality."

He also shot back at U.S. officials who have dismissed the small changes he has overseen in Cuba as meaningless.

"Faced with the measures adopted lately in our country, some official in the United States comes out immediately, from a spokesman to the president, to brand them 'insufficient' or 'cosmetic,'" Castro said. "Although no one here asked their opinion, I reiterate that we will never make any decision, not even the smallest one, as a result of pressure or blackmail."

For the fourth straight parliamentary session, Raul Castro sat next to an empty chair set aside for his ailing brother.

The elder Castro, who turns 82 next month, has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

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