Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Church urges Cuba to make 'necessary' economic changes

HAVANA, Cuba (AFP) -- Cuba's Catholic Church on Monday called on the country's regime to make "necessary changes" to reverse a spreading economic crisis and urged dialogue without conditions between Havana and arch foe Washington.

Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega pressed the government of President Raul Castro to "promptly make the necessary changes in Cuba" to alleviate hardship, stressing that the Cuban people were growing restless over deteriorating conditions in the only Communist-ruled nation in the Americas.

"This opinion has reached a kind of national consensus, and postponement produces impatience and discomfort in the people," Ortega said in "Palabra Nueva," the magazine of the Archdiocese of Havana, in reference to recent criticism by economists, academics, dissidents and artists.

Castro, who announced a need for reforms shortly after taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro four years ago, warned recently that while many "desperate" Cubans were seeking immediate change, it was vital to avoid "haste and improvisation."

Ortega's statements were the latest criticism aimed at the regime by the church, which warned in late March that "a worsening crisis is on the horizon that could break the fragile social cohesion."

The church has encouraged promotion of self-employment, legalized but restricted since 1993, and called for a law protecting small and medium private enterprises in a country where the state controls 95 percent of the economy.

It has also said performance-based pay, currently used by only 18 percent of state enterprises, should be expanded, urged "greater security" for foreign investment, and called for a boost in exports.

Ortega on Monday also urged Havana to get serious about improving ties with Washington.

"I think a Cuba-US dialogue is the first step needed to break the cycle of criticism," the cardinal said, recalling the various offers of top-level dialogue by Castro as well as US President Barack Obama, when he was campaigning for the White House in 2008.

But the cardinal also criticized Obama for repeating "the same old scheme of previous US governments," by insisting that Washington would lift its five-decade embargo on the island nation and enter high-level talks only if Havana made major changes on human rights.

"Only in advancing the dialogue can steps be made to improve or overcome the most critical situations," he said.

Havana has faced mounting international criticism that increased in February when dissident Orlando Zapata died 85 days into a hunger strike.

Cuban bishops lamented Zapata's death and called on the authorities "to take appropriate measures so that such situations do not recur."

The church also repeated its call for dissident journalist Guillermo Farinas to end his own hunger strike, begun the day after Zapata died.

Farinas told AFP Monday that he "respects" Ortega but was firm in his decision to carry on with his fast.

Ortega also criticized the harassment of the wives of political prisoners known as the "Ladies in White," who have been prevented from marching in recent weeks.

"This is no time to stir up passions," Ortega said.

April 20, 2010