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Cuba’s public-sector layoffs signal major shift

MEXICO CITY — In perhaps the clearest sign yet that economic change is gathering pace in Cuba, the government plans to lay off more than half a million people from the public sector in the expectation that they will move into private businesses, Cuba’s labor federation said Monday.

Over the past several months, President Raul Castro has given stern warnings that Cuba’s economy needs a radical overhaul, beginning with its workers. With as many as 1 million excess employees on the state payroll, Castro has said, the government is supporting a bloated bureaucracy that has sapped motivation and long sheltered a huge swath of the nation’s workers.

“We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working,” he told the National Assembly last month.

Since permanently taking over from his brother Fidel two years ago, Castro has often pledged to make Cuba’s centralized, Soviet-style economy more efficient and open up opportunities for people. The government has handed tens of thousands of acres of state-held farm land to private farmers and begun freeing up a market for agricultural supplies. It has loosened restrictions on cell phones and other electronics and created a few areas for private business, allowing barbers’ shops to become cooperatives and giving more licenses to private taxi drivers.

But these initial reforms have been comparatively limited, many analysts contend, and Cuba’s economy -- grappling with the fallout from the global financial crisis and the aftermath of devastating hurricanes in 2008 — appears to be in dire shape.

Tourism revenues have flagged, the country has faced rice shortages and its sugar crop has been disastrous. Last year, imports fell by 37 percent.

In its statement Monday, the Cuban Workers’ Central, the country’s only recognized labor federation, acknowledged the nation’s troubled economy, saying that changes were “necessary and could not be delayed.”

Floods change Pakistan’s
campaign against militants

KALAM, Pakistan — The destruction caused by the recent floods and the huge relief effort undertaken since by the Pakistani army have forced it to alter plans to combat Taliban and al-Qaida militants, Pakistani military officials here said.

Troops who have been fighting Islamist militants in the Swat Valley for the last two years will have to stay here for six months longer than planned, army officers here said. Elsewhere, some planned offensive actions have been converted to defensive actions to consolidate gains already made, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, spokesman for the military, said in a telephone call.

While the changes do not appear to involve any major retrenchment in the nation’s counterinsurgency strategy, they are the first sign of the strain the countrywide flooding has put on Pakistan’s armed forces, which are overstretched in dealing with a virulent insurgency. The Pakistani military has already delayed operations against North Waziristan, the central hub of militancy, and al-Qaida, because it says its forces are overextended.

The armed forces had to divert 72,000 men at the peak, including army and navy commandos of its Special Services Group, to do the heavy lifting of the flood rescue and relief effort, as well as provide security for U.S. helicopters that have joined the relief effort.

The Pakistani military insists that not many of the 147,000 troops deployed in the northwestern region have been diverted by the floods and that continuing operations against militants in the border region with Afghanistan have not been affected. Troops are continuing to conduct offensive operations in several places, like the Orakzai and Khyber regions, Abbas said.