Cuba's rich culture returned to the Havana International Conference Center, reflected in the National Assembly of People's Power, December 19-20. On these two days, the body's 10 standing committees known as Permanent Commissions met in work sessions to hear reports and debate, prior to the 10th period of ordinary sessions of the Assembly, the last of the 8th legislature.
Among subjects addressed in all commissions were preliminary results of the 2017 Economic Plan and state budget, as well as projections for 2018, along with the incidence of crime and illegal activity, as deputies evaluated a wide range of aspects of the country's life.
CONSOLIDATION OF UNIVERSITIES & THE CHALLENGE OF ADDRESSING DEFICIENCIES
The impact of the consolidation process in higher education was the focus of discussion in the commission devoted to Education, Science, Technology, and Environment, attended by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, Party Political Bureau member and first vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers.
The work session served as an opportunity to honor Cuban educators and allow deputies to be informed of the main antecedents, current panorama, and results of the consolidation process, which, according to Dr. Gil Ramón González, deputy Higher Education minister, has been underway for some five years and has yet to be completed.
The most important positive results, described in broad strokes, include better quality management and methodological work; increased professional categories and scientific degrees; more pedagogical training; expanded use of a multi-disciplinary approach in scientific research and innovation; more effective university extension efforts; more extensive use of educational technology; as well as the strengthening of political and mass organizations.
In terms of shortcomings, problems identified included challenges inherent in the functioning of institutions with multiple campuses, which may affect the rational use of human and material resources, also impacted by the lack of transportation and poor condition of vehicles, hindering the movement of professors. Ramón González also noted connectivity deficiencies between nodes on the data network.
During the meeting - attended by ministers of Education; Higher Education; and Science, Technology, and Environment - a deputy from Trinidad, in the province of Sancti Spíritus, Anayansi Albert, emphasized positive outcomes such as the increase in collaboration agreements, and strengthening of university work with provincial entities.
Miguel Charbonel, from Artemisa, cited as a pending issue the variety of payment systems being used in higher education, of concern since two professors "could be doing the same thing, with similar results, and receiving different salaries," adding, "This needs to change."
In the opinion of Mirta Millán, deputy from the Isle of Youth Special Municipality, agricultural and construction enterprises are still making decisions without considering scientific findings coming from our institutions of higher learning, while arguing for the importance of students recognizing their own region as the most fertile ground for their work.
In his evaluation of the consolidation process, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, stated, "This has not been an additive process, but rather one of integration," which, although still facing unsolved problems, has allowed universities to make use of the abilities of different campuses, developing stronger organizational structures, and take better advantage of human and financial resources."
Nevertheless, he said, "We must move to another stage," in which we evaluate the impact of the university's three basic functions. Firstly: undergraduate and graduate training, "facing a great challenge at this time," since it implies comprehensive, revolutionary, political, ideological, ethical, and professional preparation; plus scientific research and innovation for development; and university extension work, in which the relation between the institution and society is made evident.
THE CUBAN ECONOMY... THE CHALLENGE OF PROGRESS
"2017 was characterized by great challenges in productive activities and services, given financial and material tensions. Nevertheless, on the basis of protecting central priorities, it has been possible to maintain basic services to the population and the principal levels of activity projected in the plan, while systematic work continues in the recovery effort following damage caused by Hurricane Irma," stated Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, a Council of Ministers vice president and head of Economy and Planning, in his summary report to the Economic Affairs Commission, which included an analysis of the 2017 Economic Plan's fulfillment and proposals for 2018.
Also participating was Esteban Lazo Hernández, Political Bureau member and president of the National Assembly of People's Power, who stated that what was accomplished "does not mean that we should be satisfied," and continued, "However, taking into consideration the combination of factors impacting the economy, we can conclude that we are moving forward, be it modestly, but the gradual trend in the dynamic of development has been maintained."
Lazo reiterated that, once again, the international context is affected by the continued impact of the economic, commercial, financial blockade imposed by the United States, although, "Cuba battles tirelessly to advance, and even though all the objectives foreseen may not be achieved, positive results are evident in several productive sectors and in services for the population."
Among the principal factors affecting the economy's performance during 2017 were unmet export goals for goods and services; limitations on the availability of fuel; investment projects not undertaken; as well as the impact of severe drought and Hurricane Irma.
Cabrisas emphasized the positive results obtained in construction, commerce, and tourism, as well as in the supply of electricity, gas, and water.
He called attention to difficulties in the utilization of credit awarded, noting that as of the end of November, only 70.1% had been used. In terms of the production of oil equivalent, estimates indicate that the actual amount will be 38,000 tons below the figure projected. Likewise, the importing of fuel has been very difficult, and as of the end of November, deliveries had been inadequate.
The food industry, he said, projected reaching basic production levels, and the principle agricultural lines reported positive figures, among them, tobacco, vegetables, beans, root vegetables, beef and pork, although production of milk and eggs declined.
Cabrisas reported that approximately 90.8% of the investment plan should be completed, with the shortfall due to delays in the arrival of imported supplies and resources, as well as failures to meet projected timelines. In terms of cargo shipping, he noted that the plan should be 94.6% met, while passenger transportation improved modestly.
He paid particular attention to expenses associated with fees incurred for overstays of ships in port, a figure that, despite efforts by all involved, reached approximately
10.5 million dollars.
He noted that this figure was contradictory when expenses related to the availability of transportation, for example, were 385,500 dollars, while more than three million was spent due to poor management on the part of receiving entities. In any context, this is not sustainable, he stressed.
Considering the 10.5 million in terms of sectors, incurred by agricultural entities were 6.95 million dollars; the food processing industry, more than 2.6 million; and domestic commerce, 862,000. In terms of the cost of delays by product, corn, soy, and wheat account for 84% of the total. The statistics show how important it is that these totally unnecessary expenses be reduced, and that they are clearly hurting the economy.
CHALLENGES FOR 2018
According to Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, the results of 2017, in addition to constraints regarding the availability of hard currency and fuel, as well as the aforementioned shortcomings, will have a significant impact on the objectives outlined in next year's economic plan.
In 2018, efforts will be focused on making efficient use of material and financial resources available to repair damage caused by extreme weather events; investments linked to the development of infrastructure; increasing hard currency revenue; works in the Mariel Special Development Zone; tourism; railway transport; renewable energy; and strengthening the national electricity system; as well as expanding the country's warehousing capacity.
Meanwhile, other priorities will include food production, the sugar cane harvest, ensuring basic services to the population, such as healthcare, education, culture, and passenger transport, among others.
FUEL SUPPLIES: PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS
Fuel theft continues to harm the economy and unfortunately, data clearly shows deep cracks in control at all levels.
According to Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, as well as violations in the use of this resource which represent a loss for the country, the situation is also a breeding ground for corruption and encourages impunity.
René Hernández noted that that the proposals for the 2018 plan by enterprises and organizations themselves showed that analyses of energy supplies had not been conducted thoroughly, with diesel consumption up by 25% from the previous year, while demand for electricity exceeded the country's generating capacity by 7%, something completely unheard of.
Following adjustments, by the end of October over 330,000 tons of fuel equivalents had been withdrawn from plans.
He also stressed that, according to the results of monitoring, sales of fuel to the non-state sector at gas stations through November, were averaging about 0.70 liters per vehicle a day, and 0.19 liters per car to private sector individuals with a transport license, a trend which has been maintained throughout the year.
This means that the shared taxis that we see in the street, for example, use about 0.19 liters of fuel a day. How much fuel are we not controlling?
THE RENEWABLE ENERGY ROAD
Can renewable energy sources supply 24% of power to the national electricity system by 2030? The question was posed during debates by the National Assembly's Industry, Construction, and Energy Commission, which analyzed the policy for the sustainable development of renewable energy sources (RES) and Cuban Electric Union.
Transforming the country's energy system is not only vital to reducing fuel consumption and its associated costs; but also represents an environmentally-friendly alternative, which is why it is defined as a priority in the guiding documents of the Seventh Party Congress. Meanwhile hard work has been underway in the investment process, with sights set on achieving many of the objectives as soon as 2021.
Regarding this issue, Alfredo López, minister of Energy and Mines, spoke before deputies and Comandante de la Revolución Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, member of the Party Political Bureau and a vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers.
By the end of 2017, he explained, the county was generating 87.5 megawatts of power with different renewable energy sources. "Next year we will be working to reach 453 MW, of which we should have 283 MW. We are working on implementing bioelectric energy with the opening of the Héctor Rodríguez (Villa Clara), 30 de Noviembre (Artemisa) and Batalla de las Guásimas (Camagüey) plants," among others, he added.
Efforts are also underway to expand solar parks across locations in Matanzas, La Habana, Pinar del Río, and the Mariel Special Development Zone, some of which feature foreign investment.
The Minister went on to note that next year, the thermoelectric plant in Mariel is scheduled to receive a Slovakian machine to replace the one damaged by Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile, with the aim of increasing energy efficiency, the East Havana facility – located in Santa Cruz del Norte, Mayabeque province, will receive three new generating units, while another of the same capacity will be installed in Mariel. Likewise, a combined cycle plant is set to be opened, aimed at further exploiting natural gas in Santa Cruz del Norte.
But why talk about fossil fuel and gas power when the issue is promoting renewable sources of energy? Because, according to López, despite the undeniable advantages of RES, every power system needs an efficient base which is not affected by variations in the weather (wind, sun, drought...)
Concerns over the matter were raised by commission members, who highlighted the need to exploit other sources of renewable energy, like wave power, according to Roberto Valdés, who also noted that the use of solar power in street lighting should be explored.
In this regard, the Minister of Energy and Mines, explained that both the use of wave energy and solar power for public lighting have been considered, noting that studies are currently underway with regard to the former, while the results of assessments carried out so far have shown that, at present, that the latter isn't an economically viable option for the country.
Meanwhile, Deputy Antonio García Arce highlighted the use and value of RES for the local production of construction materials.
In addition, Isbel Guilarte Reyes, deputy for Maisí, Guantánamo province, praised the daily efforts of sector workers and, on behalf of the commission, congratulated the staff at the Electric Union for their timely and appropriate response to the devastating situation in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
COMMITTED TO CONTROL AND ASSURING AVAILABILITY
Compliance with prioritized programs such as the sale of construction materials and projections for 2018, as well as irregularities in supplies and production assurance, and control measures undertaken by the Ministry of Domestic Trade (Mincin) to stop social indiscipline, crime, and illegalities associated with this sector, were the focus of deputies in the Attention to Services Standing Committee.
At the close of November, retail market distribution stood at 102% of the more than 24,469,000 pesos of planned sales. Actual sales reached 24,971,000 pesos. However, these figures on their own are not indicative of the real situation, as there have been problems in terms of the supplies of a series of products, such as yogurt, ground beef, wieners, cement, paint, steel, sanitary paper, and cloths used to mop floors.
The causes of the instability of these items on the retail market, according to Minister of Domestic Commerce Mary Blanca Ortega, are related to an increase in demand and delayed delivery on the part of suppliers.
As such, she added, one of the strategies developed by Mincin is the permanent monitoring of compliance with plans, with priority placed on assurances in the territories with greatest demand, in correspondence with productive and financing possibilities.
Likewise, Ortega noted, in the plan projected for 2018, prioritized programs are supported, and forecast growth of 240 million pesos, with particular emphasis placed on construction materials. Following Hurricane Irma, she recalled, a working strategy was deployed for the distribution and sale of these resources to those whose homes were damaged - amounting to 260,445,000 pesos - and legal norms and procedures were issued so that the affected population could access these products, with credit facilities and discounts.
Pablo Iznalde, deputy for the Havana municipality of 10 de Octubre, stated that beyond productive and financing capacities, we must also ensure that crimes and violations are not committed. While Mincin is working on control measures, this is an issue that can not be overlooked, as in addition to economic damages to enterprises, the people are also negatively affected.
This view was shared by the Comptroller General of the Republic, Gladys Bejerano, on noting that during a recent reaudit of Mincin, 3,615 shortcomings were detected, of which 62.4% were linked to subjective elements.
Order, discipline, and thoroughness are key to our work, as loss rates remain high and this gives rise to the diversion of resources, both in national and locally managed enterprises. There are also problems in accounting records and invoicing, with cases of counterfeiting and fraud. All this can be avoided, stressed the Comptroller, by correctly implementing an internal accounting system, without forgetting that the main asset of any enterprise is the human being, the worker, and that we must be committed to ethics and the promotion of moral values.
SEEKING AN EFFICIENT SUGAR HARVEST
The Azcuba enterprise group reported to the Food and Agriculture Committee, in which preparatory measures for the 2017-2018 sugar harvest were presented.
Regarding this issue, Azcuba President Orlando Celso García Ramírez explained that the industry is currently running at 93%, having been affected above all by the late arrival of imported resources as a result of non-payment to suppliers, which has forced them to seek alternatives.
The repair of sugar mills, perfecting staff training, the reduction of losses in the harvest with the combination of new technologies, the installation of equipment to make the work in the mills more productive, and the repair of mills, boilers, and power plants, are among the measures adopted to ensure a better performance in the upcoming harvest. Likewise, in order to reduce losses in honey production, the improvement of technological systems and equipment is envisaged.
"Hurricane Irma significantly affected the industry and crops. Some 380,000 hectares of cane were split or flattened. In the present harvest 53 refineries will process raw sugar. The Brasil mill, in the province of Camagüey, will not function this year due to hurricane damage," García explained.
A FOCUS ON GENDER
The lack of protection for self-employed women workers continues to be an unresolved phenomenon, stated Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, first deputy minister of Labor and Social Security, speaking during the Youth, Childhood, and Equal Rights for Women Committee's first session of debates.
This issue arose as part of the Assembly's follow-up on aspects previously addressed, and, in this case, it was the responsibility of this Ministry to comment on the results of an audit conducted of the island's private sector. "We detected that of 7,423 violations of labor and social security rights, 104 cases were linked to the lack of protection for women workers," the deputy minister reported.
In this regard, Yosvani Reyes, deputy for Granma, acknowledged that "during the inspection process we detected that many women did not have a salary, their working hours were not respected."
"These acts stemming from the vulnerability of working women will not be without legal consequences," Feitó stressed.
Meanwhile, deputies learned of the implementation of a national survey on gender equality.
GLOBAL CHALLENGES AND SCENARIOS
The current international scene and possible scenarios in coming years were the topics discussed during the morning session of the International Relations Committee.
Isabel Allende, rector of the Raúl Roa García Higher Institute of International Relations, offered a report on issues of concern in the different regions of the world.
Referring to Latin America, she noted that right wing forces are reappearing - the most recent example being the election of Sebastián Piñera as president in Chile - and left movements are losing ground.
Meanwhile, the internal contradictions of the European Union are surfacing, proof being the case of Catalan independence. In Africa, despite the inequalities and ethnic divisions inherited from colonization, certain countries have seen significant economic growth.
Allende emphasized the advance of multilateralism, and with it various centers of power, including India, Russia, and China.
Meanwhile, Santiago Pérez, deputy director of the International Policy Research Center (CIPI), highlighted the importance of China's Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, as well as the scientific and technical revolution that the world is experiencing.
Leyla Carrillo, a CIPI collaborator, offered global forecasts for the next five years, with an increase in migration, leading to more walls, fences, and repression against migrants.
She noted that wars will continue, especially on the part of terrorist groups, although she highlighted the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria, a country that has been left devastated.
Likewise, she mentioned the proliferation of new threats to peace, an escalation of the arms race and the use of armed force, as well as an erosion of disarmament agreements.
Referring to the United States, she stressed that this nation downplays the role of international bodies; while interventionist statements multiply within the UN Security Council, using concepts such as humanitarian aid and the responsibility of world powers as pretexts. Consequently, this body is becoming an increasingly antidemocratic and non-transparent platform.
Terrorism must be seen as a universal scourge that is not eliminated through arms, she noted, as it arises from social inequality and confrontations of various kinds.
Meanwhile, the Industry, Construction and Energy Standing Committee received information on the country's housing situation following recent extreme weather events from Vivian Rodríguez Salazar, general director of Housing. The Health and Sports Committee analyzed the results of the audit of the impact of the current structure of the National Baseball Series and the participation of its athletes contracted in overseas leagues.
Other matters evaluated by deputies including those related to the integration of procedural offices related to law and order, and passenger transportation. (Granma)