Cuba to create agency to fight corruption "cancer"
News from Cuba | Thursday, 30 July 2009
By Marc Frank for Reuters
Cuba's National Assembly will set up a powerful new agency on Saturday tasked with fighting corruption, which President Raul Castro has called a "deadly cancer" plaguing the communist-ruled island's economy.
In his regular Thursday spot on state television, Cuba's top economic commentator Ariel Terrero said the Comptroller General's Office, to be created through new legislation, will try to ensure that state revenues are properly used.
The office will replace the Ministry of Auditing and Control and be attached to the Council of State. It will have sweeping powers to audit and control all government and economic entities.
"This will ... help avoid or limit the possibility (of corruption) and respond to corrupt acts," said Terrero, who regularly comments on economic affairs in the state media.
Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro last year, has vowed to make the struggling economy more efficient and productive. This includes cracking down on graft, he has said.
Cuba's campaign against corruption in its society and economy has been a long one, with what leaders consider high stakes for the future of the communist system installed after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.
Transparency International, a leading organization in the global fight against corruption, ranked Cuba 65th of 180 countries on its 2008 corruption index, better placed than most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But fighting corruption is not easy on an island gripped by economic crisis where inequality is growing and the average wage of ministers and company managers is between $40 and $100 per month including bonuses.
One western diplomat said replacing the Auditing Ministry with the Comptroller's Office was a "cosmetic" step, as most Cubans, from the humble to the privileged, struggle to make ends meet, often involving illegal transactions.
Diversion of goods to the black market and retail-level theft are so widespread that many people hawk their stolen wares in front of shopping malls.
Former leader Fidel Castro once warned the country that corruption played a big role in the demise of the Soviet Union, for decades Cuba's biggest economic benefactor, whose collapse plunged the Cuban economy into crisis in the early 1990s.
"Socialist morality must be preserved ... We can't let the idea get around that we can be bribed," he said.
Current President Raul Castro, who served for decades as defense minister, has also spoken out often about corruption and its insidious effect.
"The deadly cancer has metastasized from our knees up to here (pointing to his chest)," he told national leaders in a closed-door speech in March 2006, according to a source who saw a video of the meeting.
In March of this year, Raul Castro took the dramatic step of replacing most of his cabinet, in part on grounds they were too cozy with foreign businessmen and lax in controlling graft beneath them.
Official information on corruption in Cuba is sparse but, in 2000, Attorney General Juan Escalona, testifying before a parliamentary committee, reported his office began the prosecutions of 5,800 white-collar criminal cases.
Foreign businessmen report that corruption at the very highest level of government is rare. But kickbacks are relatively common among state-run company managers and even more so at government offices where Cubans go to take care of housing and other problems.
"The other day I went to legalize my home and the housing director said 'you have two choices, pay me $600 or wait two years,'" one Havana resident said.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and John O'Callaghan)