Obama urges real change in Cuba before normal relations with US

President Barack Obama says he would like to see “real change” in Cuba before relations between the two countries could be normalized.

“I would welcome real change from the Cuban government for us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries,” Obama told a Spanish-langue television station in Miami over the weekend.

“We’ve got to see significant changes from the Cuban government, and we just have not seen that yet,” he said on WLTV.

The U.S. president said he’s yet to see “realistic” changes in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island, despite “some talk” of reforms by Cuba’s communist leader, Raul Castro.Last week, the Cuban Communist Party published a list of proposed economic reforms, raising both high hopes for a more efficient economy and deep questions about exactly how that would be achieved.

The 313 “guidelines” proposed expanding the sale of homes and cars and the ability of Cubans to travel abroad as tourists, creating production cooperatives and slashing state subsidies and payrolls, among many other changes.

Endorsed last month at a Communist Party Congress, the proposals are designed to rescue a crisis-plagued economy by opening the doors to private business activity without totally abandoning Cuba’s half-century of Soviet-styled central controls.

The government also wants to eliminate the country’s burdensome two-currency system and legalize the sale of construction material at unsubsidized prices.

Other guidelines call for the continued shrinking of the ration card, which provides all Cubans with a basic basket of food and personal items per month at highly subsidized prices, and replacing it with a system of subsidies for poor families only.

But the proposals published in the Granma newspaper, the official voice of the party, provided few details on how those changes would be carried out.

Analysts said that simply bringing into the open what had been a black market of house and automobile swaps could be one of the most significant changes to the economy in decades and could inject badly needed cash into the system.

Cuban nationals are permitted to sell cars made before the 1959 revolution, but only to another owner.

Many of these changes are already under way, announced in a number of speeches by Castro over the past several months.

In the speeches, Castro declared that Cuba, hit hard by the global recession, deteriorating sugar market and, the government says, repercussions of the near half-century old US’ economic embargo, must move from an almost entirely state-based economy toward one allowing at least a little more free enterprise.

Castro has vowed to maintain socialism, while taking steps like expanding the ranks of the self-employed and increasing the leasing of state land for private farming, all subject to heavy taxation.

The document also said leaders should “study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists.”

In addition to the “economic reforms,” Castro has released dozens of political dissidents into exile in Spain in an agreed reached with the Catholic Archdiocese in Havana, the Cuban capital.

But Obama said he is still very dissatisfied with the “cosmetic changes” that Castro has sought to implement.

“The bottom line is political prisoners are still there who should have been released a long time ago, who never should have been arrested in the first place,” he said.

“Political dissent is still not tolerated. The economic system there is still far too constrained, he added.

“If you think about it, (Fidel) Castro (Raul’s predecessor elder brother) came into power before I was born,” Obama continued. “He’s still there, and he basically has the same system when the rest of the world has recognized that the system doesn’t work.”

Since becoming president in January 2009, Obama said he has eased some aspects of the embargo, such as lifting restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, permitting some U.S. telecommunications business with Havana, and enhancing some categories of non-tourist travel to Cuba by U.S. nationals in order to promote “people-to-people” contacts.

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