HAVANA -- President Raul Castro on Friday put on ice highly-anticipated plans to ease travel restrictions on Cubans, telling lawmakers the nation would not be pressured into moving too fast and citing continued aggression from the United States as the reason for his cautious approach.
Cuba has been awash in speculation the much-hated regulations, which prevent most Cubans from leaving the island, might be lifted during Friday's session of the National Assembly. But Castro said the time still wasn't right, despite a year of free-market reforms that has seen the Communist government legalize a real estate market and greatly increase private business ownership.
"Some have been pressuring us to take the step ... as if we were talking about something insignificant, and not the destiny of the revolution," Castro said, adding that those calling for an end to the travel restrictions "are forgetting the exceptional circumstances under which Cuba lives, encircled by the hostile policy ... of the U.S. government."
Castro criticized U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he was the 11th American president since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel, and appeared "not to understand" the sacrifices Cuba had made in its struggle for independence and sovereignty, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as Washington's 49-year trade and travel embargo.
"Sometimes, he (Obama) gives the impression he has not even been informed of this reality," Castro said, repeating his willingness to normalize relations with the U.S. under the right conditions.
Castro also announced an amnesty for 2,900 prisoners ahead of next year's visit by Pope Benedict XVI, but a senior official told the Associated Press that jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross would not be among those freed.
The Cuban president told legislators he still hoped to enact the travel reforms, but did not say when. If hopes were high among islanders that Friday would be the big day, Castro had only himself to blame.
At parliament's last session, in August, he announced that the government was committed to ease the travel restrictions. He said the measures were originally adopted because many who left in the years after the revolution were a threat to the nascent government, including people backed by the United States who sought its overthrow.
Castro said in August that most of those who leave now do so for economic reasons and are not enemies. He said removing travel restrictions would help "increase the nation's ties to the community of emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of the revolution."
Cubans had been clamoring for the elimination of the "tarjeta blanca," or exit visa, which the government requires of all seeking to travel abroad, even for vacation. Many people are denied, particularly doctors, scientists and military officials whose departure would be considered a threat to the state.
"The need for permission to leave should never have been invented in the first place," Victor Salgado, a 73-year-old retiree, told the Associated Press ahead of Castro's speech. "They should have eliminated this long ago. Why should I have to ask permission if I want to leave my country?"
Another Havana resident, Yamila Baez, said she was hoping the restrictions would be scrapped as soon as possible.
"It isn't normal that one has to ask the government for its okay," she said. "If you have the money to buy a ticket you should be able to go."
Castro's speech was the highlight of an otherwise humdrum parliament session in which legislators approved a budget for 2012 and heard from senior officials on the state of the economy.
Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo told lawmakers the government expected economic growth to come in at 3.4 percent in 2012, a bit better than the 2.7 percent expected to be registered this year. Finance Minister Lina Pedraza added that the government expects both revenue and costs to rise in 2012, with the government running a deficit of about 3.8 percent.
Cuban officials also used the session to criticize Washington for its trade and travel embargo, and to call on the U.S. to release four Cuban agents still imprisoned there. A fifth left jail earlier this year, but has been blocked from returning to Cuba until he completes parole.
Cuba is ending the first year of a drive by Castro to reform its state-dominated economy. The government has allowed citizens to get business licenses for nearly 200 approved jobs, and 355,000 have taken them up on the offer. The state has also legalized a real estate market for the first time in nearly half a century, begun extending bank credits to entrepreneurs and those wishing to fix up their homes, and removed restrictions on the sale of used cars.
A parallel effort to trim half a million workers from state payrolls largely foundered.