Cuba is working to overhaul migratory rules that were enacted decades ago out of necessity but have become anachronistic today, President Raul Castro told lawmakers and the nation Monday at the close of the island's parliament.
The session was closely watched for new details of economic reforms that the government has promised will revive the stalled economy with a dose of private enterprise, but little concrete information emerged.
Instead Cuba's economic czar gave a wide-ranging report on the changes, touching on everything from tourism to agricultural efficiency to the sale of construction materials.
Castro did not specifically mention the widely loathed white card, which has been in place since the 1960s and obliges Cubans to seek permission to leave the country. But he said migration controls were necessary because many who left in the early years after the 1959 revolution were a threat to Fidel Castro's nascent government, including people backed by the United States who sought to overthrow Castro. Today, Raul said, those who leave do so for economic reasons, prompting his government to reevaluate the rules.
"We take this step as a contribution to increase the nation's ties to the community of emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of the revolution," he said. "The country is (now) on a path of modifying decisions that played a role in their time and endured unnecessarily."
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Castro also criticized U.S. policy allowing the vast majority of Cubans who reach the country to stay and treats them as refugees, unlike migrants from other nations.
Officials have been talking for years about doing away with the white card, though without anything ever coming to fruition. In May, the wish of many islanders was revived as part of a list of guidelines that Castro is banking on to improve the country's and Cubans' fiscal health.
The rough outline for the country's economic future was approved at a Communist Party summit in April, and Cubans have been waiting for those recommendations to become reality ever since. Details have been slow to emerge, and no concrete legislation was announced Monday.
Castro, who took over definitively from his older brother in 2008, has said officials are going at their own pace on the reforms and will be neither hurried nor delayed.
Already the government has licensed nearly 200 types of private-sector activity in which Cubans can go into business for themselves and hire employees, though Castro emphasizes that the country is not abandoning socialism and there is no sign that any large industry will be privatized anytime soon.
"The state of Cuba is in a genuine transition toward a new political economy and society, and it's a transition in which the people of Cuba are beginning to find their voices through independent employment," said Robert Pastor, a Cuba expert and professor of international relations at American University.
Also pending are potentially blockbuster changes such as allowing Cubans to freely buy and sell homes and cars by year's end, for the first time since the 1960s.
Meanwhile, plans to lay off hundreds of thousands of government workers, as well as talk of phasing out the monthly ration card of basic goods, have some Cubans anxious despite assurances that the neediest will not be forgotten. Until now, the state has employed the vast majority of workers.
"The government is trying to bolster the economy without losing control, so this will be a period of some uncertainty and tension that will extend for a period of time," Pastor said. "I think the question is whether Raul will be able to reassure people that they will not be abandoned just because the state is shrinking in size, and to find a way to communicate that so that they can continue moving forward on the reforms."
Foreign journalists were not invited to attend the plenary session of the National Assembly, which got under way Monday around midmorning.
In comments broadcast on state television in the evening, economic czar Marino Murillo spoke at length on the reforms — but largely in general terms, and there was no word on a timetable for when legislation will take effect.
He reiterated promises that the policy on buying and selling houses and cars will be on the books before the end of the year and stressed that Cubans will be able to realize such transactions effective simply by going to a notary.
"Therefore to sell a home you won't have to ask permission from the municipal housing office. Administrative bureaucracy is being broken down," Murillo said.
Castro also said the economy grew 1.9 percent in the first six months of 2011, compared with the same period last year, and is projected to increase 2.9 percent on the year, under the unique metrics that Cuba uses to calculate GDP.
The National Assembly meets briefly twice a year for business-packed legislative sessions. Monday's lasted just one day, although legislators have been meeting in committee since last week.
Lawmakers are expected to gather next around the end of the year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.