Russians blamed as Castro halts nuclear plans

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THE announcement by President Fidel Castro on Saturday that Cuba was suspending its nuclear energy programme was made in the context of a defiant 'no surrender' speech, which put most of the blame for Cuba's economic plight firmly on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

The speech, delivered in Cienfuegos, where the nuclear plant is located, stressed that the loss of preferential trade terms with the old Eastern bloc, which used to account for more than 90 per cent of Cuba's foreign trade, had come close to crippling the island's economy. Commercial relations are now strictly on the basis of world market prices, instead of the subsidised levels of the past, leaving Cuba with a permanent foreign-exchange crisis.

But Mr Castro said that Cuba would never give up the fight to remain socialist.

'If the alternative is . . . to stop being what we are, we revolutionaries prefer death a thousand times,' the 66-year-old leader said in a two-hour speech.

Mr Castro also announced that this year's sugar harvest, at 7 million tons, was better than expected, despite severe shortages of fuel, equipment, herbicides and fertilisers. The total was lower than the 7.6 million tons produced last year, but was considerably higher than forecast by international analysts. Mr Castro said the entire harvest had been sold; about 1 million tons had been taken by Russia, which is providing about 1.5 million tons of oil in return. Cuba's energy imports this year will be about 6 million tons, compared with 13 million in 1989 and 8 million last year.

Mr Castro said Cuba was determined to keep an economic survival strategy that gave priority to producing more food and developing such sectors as tourism, pharmaceuticals and bio- technology, when possible in partnership with foreign investors.

Commenting on Cuba's economic strategy during the current 'Special Period', Raul Roa, the deputy Foreign Minister, said in London last week that what his country lacked was capital, not know-how or technology.

The Cienfuegos nuclear power plant, Cuba's first, has been under construction for 10 years, using Soviet finance and technology; more than dollars 1bn has been spent on it already. Cuba had hoped that Russia would continue to provide the same terms, but Mr Castro announced on Saturday that Cuba was unable to accept economic conditions offered by Moscow to complete the project.

Suspension of the nuclear programme is a bitter blow to Mr Castro - it was intended to provide up to 25 per cent of Cuba's energy needs. It also comes soon after the dismissal in June (for 'inefficiency') of his son, Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, as head of the nuclear project.