Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuba says travel restrictions to remain in place

    Posted on Friday, 12.23.11

    Cuba says travel restrictions to remain in place
    Associated Press

    HAVANA -- President Raul Castro on Friday put on ice highly-anticipated
    plans to ease travel restrictions on Cubans, telling lawmakers the
    nation would not be pressured into moving too fast and citing continued
    aggression from the United States as the reason for his cautious approach.

    Cuba has been awash in speculation the much-hated regulations, which
    prevent most Cubans from leaving the island, might be lifted during
    Friday's session of the National Assembly. But Castro said the time
    still wasn't right, despite a year of free-market reforms that has seen
    the Communist government legalize a real estate market and greatly
    increase private business ownership.

    "Some have been pressuring us to take the step ... as if we were talking
    about something insignificant, and not the destiny of the revolution,"
    Castro said, adding that those calling for an end to the travel
    restrictions "are forgetting the exceptional circumstances under which
    Cuba lives, encircled by the hostile policy ... of the U.S. government."

    Castro criticized U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he was the 11th
    American president since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel,
    and appeared "not to understand" the sacrifices Cuba had made in its
    struggle for independence and sovereignty, including the Bay of Pigs
    invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Washington's 49-year
    trade and travel embargo.

    "Sometimes, he (Obama) gives the impression he has not even been
    informed of this reality," Castro said, repeating his willingness to
    normalize relations with the U.S. under the right conditions.

    Castro also announced an amnesty for 2,900 prisoners ahead of next
    year's visit by Pope Benedict XVI, but a senior official told the
    Associated Press that jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross would not
    be among those freed.

    The Cuban president told legislators he still hoped to enact the travel
    reforms, but did not say when. If hopes were high among islanders that
    Friday would be the big day, Castro had only himself to blame.

    At parliament's last session, in August, he announced that the
    government was committed to ease the travel restrictions. He said the
    measures were originally adopted because many who left in the years
    after the revolution were a threat to the nascent government, including
    people backed by the United States who sought its overthrow.

    Castro said in August that most of those who leave now do so for
    economic reasons and are not enemies. He said removing travel
    restrictions would help "increase the nation's ties to the community of
    emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of
    the revolution."

    Cubans had been clamoring for the elimination of the "tarjeta blanca,"
    or exit visa, which the government requires of all seeking to travel
    abroad, even for vacation. Many people are denied, particularly doctors,
    scientists and military officials whose departure would be considered a
    threat to the state.

    "The need for permission to leave should never have been invented in the
    first place," Victor Salgado, a 73-year-old retiree, told the Associated
    Press ahead of Castro's speech. "They should have eliminated this long
    ago. Why should I have to ask permission if I want to leave my country?"

    Another Havana resident, Yamila Baez, said she was hoping the
    restrictions would be scrapped as soon as possible.

    "It isn't normal that one has to ask the government for its okay," she
    said. "If you have the money to buy a ticket you should be able to go."

    Castro's speech was the highlight of an otherwise humdrum parliament
    session in which legislators approved a budget for 2012 and heard from
    senior officials on the state of the economy.

    Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo told lawmakers the government expected
    economic growth to come in at 3.4 percent in 2012, a bit better than the
    2.7 percent expected to be registered this year. Finance Minister Lina
    Pedraza added that the government expects both revenue and costs to rise
    in 2012, with the government running a deficit of about 3.8 percent.

    Cuban officials also used the session to criticize Washington for its
    trade and travel embargo, and to call on the U.S. to release four Cuban
    agents still imprisoned there. A fifth left jail earlier this year, but
    has been blocked from returning to Cuba until he completes parole.

    Cuba is ending the first year of a drive by Castro to reform its
    state-dominated economy. The government has allowed citizens to get
    business licenses for nearly 200 approved jobs, and 355,000 have taken
    them up on the offer. The state has also legalized a real estate market
    for the first time in nearly half a century, begun extending bank
    credits to entrepreneurs and those wishing to fix up their homes, and
    removed restrictions on the sale of used cars.

    A parallel effort to trim half a million workers from state payrolls
    largely foundered.