THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cuba on Friday suspended plans for a Communist Party congress and lowered its 2009 economic growth projection to 1.7 percent — nearly a full percentage point — as the island’s economy struggles through a “very serious” crisis.
In a closed-door meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, officials agreed to postpone indefinitely the first congress since 1997, which had been announced for the second half of this year.
The gathering was to chart Cuba’s political future long after President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel are gone. Instead, top communists will try and pull their country back from the economic brink.
Cuba lowered its 2009 growth estimate from 2.5 percent to 1.7 percent, but even that figure is dubious given that it includes 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 the second of its kind this year. As recently as December, central planners said they thought the Cuban economy would grow by 6 percent in 2009.
The country’s 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 subsequent recession.
The 78-year-old Raul Castro succeeded his brother as president more than 18 months ago, but it’s the soon-to-be 83-year-old Fidel who remains head of the Communist Party.
Party congresses historically have been held every five years or so to renew leadership and set major policies, but the government has broken with that tradition over the past decade.
Information about the Central Committee meeting occupied the entire front page of the Communist Party daily Granma and a full page inside cited Raul Castro as reporting that “things are very serious and we are now analyzing them.”
“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 said, citing the president.
It said authorities would postpone the sixth Party congress “until this crucial phase ... has been overcome,” but did not say when that might be.
Waiting for his copy of Granma when it hit newsstands at 7 a.m., Raul Salgado, a 72-year-old retiree, said, “I want to know what’s happening, or better yet, what’s going to happen.”
“I don’t think it matters much to the people if there is a congress or not. What the people want here in Cuba is to know what the government is going to do to get out of such a terrible situation like the one in which we’re living,” Salgado said.
Cuba has begun a major push to conserve energy in an attempt to save some of the imported oil it uses to run power plants. State-run factories have been idled during peak hours, air conditioners have been stilled at government offices and some work hours shortened.
Granma made it clear more cutbacks were coming, but did not give details. Cuba’s rubber-stamp parliament convenes Saturday for one of its two full sessions a year and could unveil new energy-saving plans then.