HAVANA, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Cuba’s economy will grow 6 percent next year, after a disappointing 2008 that has been one of the worst years for the country in recent history, Cuban Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said on Saturday.
Government ministers, in speeches to a year-end meeting of the National Assembly, admitted the optimistic forecast for 2009 was based on plans that were more tentative than usual because of the financial crisis that has plunged the global economy into recession.
They called for fiscal discipline to help the communist-run country get through economic difficulties touched off by a swelling trade deficit caused by rising import costs and three hurricanes that inflicted $10 billion in damages.
“The year coming to an end has been without doubt one of the most difficult since the special period began,” Rodriguez said, referring to the years of economic crisis that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s key benefactor.
Despite the difficulties, he said, Cuba’s economy grew 4.3 percent in 2008 — about half the government forecast of 8 percent.
Highlights included a 9.3 percent increase in the number of tourists, to 2.35 million, and a 7.2 percent rise in exports of goods and services. Also, officials said oil and gas production had increased 1.6 percent.
On the down side, prices for nickel, Cuba’s top export, fell 41 percent, which cost the island $250 million in expected revenues, while import prices rose 53 percent, Rodriguez said.
The budget deficit for 2008 rose to a higher-than-expected 6.7 percent of gross domestic product, said Finance Minister Georgina Barreiro Fajardo.
Unlike recent years, Rodriguez gave few details about expectations for 2009 and did not outline why the government is forecasting 6 percent growth.
“The international economic perspectives for 2009 present characteristics of greater complexity,” he said. “Consequently the 2009 plan has been drawn up with a heightened level of uncertainty.”
President Raul Castro, who formally replaced ailing older brother Fidel Castro in February after provisionally filling in for him after he underwent intestinal surgery in July 2006, was expected to address the National Assembly later on Saturday. (Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Mohammad Zargham)