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Raul Castro took a back seat to his dauphin, Vice President Diaz-Canel, who carried the weight of the event. (EFE / Alejandro Ernesto)

14ymedio biggerEFE / via 14ymedio, Havana, 21 December 2017 — The president of Cuba, Raúl Castro, confirmed on Thursday that he will leave office on April 21, after the Cuban Parliament extended his current mandate until that date, a mandate which was due to end on February 24.

“When the National Assembly is constituted I will have finished my second and last term at the head of the State and the government, and Cuba will have a new president,” said Castro, 86, in his speech before the plenary of the National Assembly of People’s Power, reproduced by state media.

On Thursday, the same plenary session approved the proposal of the Council of State to extend the president’s current term of office for two months and to reschedule the general elections because of the ravages caused in September by Hurricane Irma as it passed through Cuba, leaving ten dead in Cuba and causing damages exceeding 13 billion dollars.

For the same reason, the municipal elections that opened the electoral process that should be concluded in 2018 with the holding of general elections and the renewal of the People’s Power Assembly, which in turn will designate the president, had already been postponed for a month from October to November.

Although it has not been officially confirmed, it is expected that Raúl Castro’s successor will be the current first vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, age 57.

The president has defended the need for a generational change in the leadership of the island and on numerous occasions has insisted that he will leave the presidency of Cuba when his second term ends, in compliance with the recently imposed term limits of ten years (two terms) to remain in government positions in the country.

Fidel Castro, who died in November 2016 at the age of 90, ruled Cuba for almost five decades, until he transferred power to his younger brother in 2006 due to a serious illness.

The Cuban electoral law establishes that the president, along with the vice president and the remaining members of the Council of State are elected on the basis of a proposal drawn up by a Nominations Committee made up of deputies elected in the general elections, and the proposal is then put to the vote of the Parliament.

Raul Castro also said that “the solution to the circulation of dual currencies in the country cannot be delayed any longer” and anticipated that 2018 “will also be complicated for the nation’s external finances,” even though the country emerged from the recession this year to grow by 1.6%.

In his closing speech to Parliament’s second and last annual plenary session, Castro considered that although the monetary reunification will not solve all the problems of the economy, it is “the most decisive process” to advance in the reforms promoted during his mandate intended to update the island’s socialist model.

The crisis in Venezuela, which has reduced shipments of subsidized oil to Cuba, along with the cooling of relations with the United States after the arrival of Donald Trump, and the more than 13 billion dollars in losses due to the passage of Hurricane Irma, have sharpened the chronic economic problems of the country.

“Without solving this issue, it will be difficult to advance correctly,” said the president, whose speech was printed in full on state media.

Two currencies circulate in Cuba: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC, pegged to the dollar and worth 24 CUP). The Cuban authorities have explained that the main objective of the unification is to restore the “value” of the Cuban peso (CUP) as a national currency and its functions as money. Most Cubans collect their salaries and pay for basic services with the CUP, also called the “national currency,” with the average monthly salary about 672 Cuban pesos (equivalent to about 28 dollars).

Although the process to reach the planned monetary unification on the island began in 2013, with the implementation of a schedule of measures, to date it remains unknown when it will occur.

“Nobody can calculate the high cost that the persistence of duality has meant for the state sector, which favors the unfair inverted pyramid, where the greater the responsibility, the lower the compensation received,” the president said.

He said he believes that the situation discourages some “able citizens” from “working legally,” while other highly qualified workers migrate to the non-state sector.

With regards to the growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which in 2017 was 1.6%, Castro said that this result “does not satisfy,” despite the fact that the country climbed out of the recession which had continued to the end of 2016 (-0.9 %).

“Next year the nation’s external finances will also be complicated,” Castro said, although he underscored the country’s intention to recover international economic credibility and meet commitments to repay its foreign debt, which was renegotiated in 2015 with the Paris Club.

He also asked for a consolidation of foreign investment in the Cuban economy, which this year exceeded the goal of two billion dollars for the first time, although he noted that this process is hindered by the economic embargo that the United States maintains against Cuba.

Regarding the development of self-employment, which is in a process of “improvement” that has led to the suspension of the most popular licenses (such as private restaurants and tourist rentals), he reiterated that the country “will not renounce the deployment and development of non-state forms of management in the economy.”

However, he insisted on the “need to ensure respect for the law, secure positive results and firmly confront illegalities and violations of the current policy,” all of which the government offered as reasons, last August, when it froze the concession of some types of license.

According to official figures, Cuba has 567,982 self-employed workers, 12% of the country’s workforce, 32% of whom are young.

Castro also described, Thursday, the setback in relations between Cuba and the United States as “serious,” and he attributed it to the “artificial fabrication of irrational pretexts.”

“In 2017 we have witnessed a serious and irrational setback in Cuba-US relations, for which our country is not responsible,” said the president during the speech that closed the last meeting of the National Assembly of People’s Power

For several months, the bilateral relationship has gone through moments of tension due to the supposed “acoustic attacks” suffered on the island by a score of US diplomats. Havana denied having any responsibility for these incidents and later questioned their veracity. Castro said Cuba is not responsible for the turnaround caused by Trump in relations and said that the United States has “artificially fabricated irrational pretexts.”

“I reiterate that Cuba did not have, nor does it have, responsibility for the alleged incidents that occurred with diplomats accredited in the country. Investigations carried out by Cuban and American experts confirm this,” he said.

Castro also reported today that last September’s scourge of the powerful Hurricane Irma left losses of $13.2 billion on the island, according to official media.

Castro offered the comprehensive quantification of the damages caused by Irma; previously only the losses in some sectors had been disclosed. The Cuban leader specified that the material and financial costs of the effects of the hurricane were calculated in Cuban pesos based on parity with the US dollar.

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