April 10, 2019 / 2:11 PM / 2 months ago

Castro says Cuba will not abandon Venezuela despite U.S. 'blackmail'

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban Communist Party leader Raul Castro said on Wednesday Cuba would never abandon its leftist ally Venezuela despite U.S. “blackmail”, even as the Trump administration threatened more sanctions over its support.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (L), Cuban Communist Party leader Raul Castro (C) and National Assembly President Esteban Lazo react during the enactment of the new constitution, in Havana, Cuba April 10, 2019. Irene Perez/Courtesy Cubadebate/Handout via REUTERS

In a speech to the national assembly, meeting to enact the new constitution, Castro said Cuba had been upping defense preparedness in recent months in view of increased U.S. hostility.

The island nation had also been adopting economic measures to contend with the Trump administration’s tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo, Castro told legislators.

“We will never abandon our duty of acting in solidarity with Venezuela,” Castro said. “We reject strongly all types of blackmail.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday the United States would announce additional action to hold Cuba accountable for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Cuban security and intelligence officials of propping up Maduro’s government. Cuba denies those claims.

“Cuba is being blamed for all evils, using lies and the worst kind of Hitlerian propaganda,” Castro said. “We have told the U.S. administration Cuba is not afraid and will continue building the future of the nation without outside interference.”

The enactment of the new constitution allows Cuba’s government to launch a modest revamp of its centrally planned single party system with dozens of laws expected on everything from the justice system to political structures.

Many observers are hopeful the government will open Cuba’s still inefficient state-run economy further to free enterprise with a law recognizing private businesses, not just self-employment, although they do not expect that to be among the first pieces of legislation it tackles.

That could give a boost to an economy which has had to contend with declining aid from Venezuela and a resulting cash crunch over the past three years, prompting the government to introduce austerity measures.

Shortages of basic goods have increased recently, including flour, eggs and chicken, with the state even reducing the size and circulation of its newspapers due to a lack of newsprint.

The situation could worsen further in coming months in view of the tightening U.S. trade embargo, Castro warned.

That did not mean a return to the kind of deep crisis Cuba experienced following the 1991 collapse of its former benefactor the Soviet Union, however, as its economy had diversified since then, he said.

SLEW OF NEW LAWS

Cubans overwhelmingly ratified the new constitution in a February referendum after a year of debate, updating its 1976 Soviet-era Magna Carta.

While it retains socialism as “irrevocable,” it codifies changes in Cuban society since 1991, like the opening of the economy to free enterprise, and includes a political restructuring among other changes.

Analysts say the constitution gives some leeway as to how reformist the around 50 laws needed to bring the legal system in line with it should be.

“The formation of a more open and democratic country depends on this process and not on the constitution,” said Cuban lawyer and legal columnist for independent media Eloy Viera Cañive.

The constitution stipulates that the national assembly must approve a new electoral law to reflect the restructuring of government within six months.

Slideshow (6 Images)

Within the following three months, it must elect a president, widely expected to remain Miguel Diaz-Canel, who succeeded Castro last April. That president must then appoint provincial governors and a prime minister - a new post separating the role of head of state from head of government.

The Magna Carta stipulates that within 18 months, new laws reflecting constitutional changes to the judicial system such as the presumption of innocence in criminal cases and habeas corpus should also be introduced.

The process of a popular consultation and referendum on a new family code, that will address the controversial issue of gay marriage, should also be kicked off within two years.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and James Dalgleish

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