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Cuban economy opened to allow sale of industrial items

In another move to open up its devastated economy, Cuba announced Wednesday that it would allow the free sale of a wide range of materials and consumer products that have until now been tightly controlled by the state.

In a decree signed by President Fidel Castro and published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, the government said it would create a network of retail markets for handicrafts, leftover industrial supplies and surplus products made by state companies.

The decree did not specify what products would become available, nor did it say what criteria government officials and company managers would use in determining what kinds of old stocks might be sold off.

But economists and other analysts said that depending on how it was applied, the measure could have a significant impact in making more efficient use of resources that have often piled up in warehouses and storerooms.

The announcement comes less than a month after the government opened up markets around the country for the sale of fruits, vegetables and other farm products at prices determined by supply and demand.

Government officials said that the move met with some resistance within the Communist Party, in part because it represented a reversal of Castro's decision in 1986 to end a six-year experiment in so-called free farmers' markets. At that time, party officials were especially critical of the fact that some farmers and middlemen were becoming relatively wealthy, threatening the ideal of a society in which all citizens were supposed to be more or less equal in their standards of living.

Yet in the face of food shortages that have grown severe since the Cuban economy was plunged into crisis five years ago by the collapse of its Soviet bloc trading partnerships, the rules governing the new agricultural markets are in fact more liberal than those of the 1980s.

A deputy agriculture minister, Eduardo M. Chao Trujillo, said Tuesday that 80 percent of the food being distributed in the Havana area continued to move through state stores in which products are rationed. But he described the new markets as a success, saying that prices had been stable, taxes paid to the state had been significant, and more farmers were abandoning the once-thriving black market.

"We have begun to stimulate producers to increase their output," he said. And predicting greater results ahead, he added: "We have not even begun to crawl yet."

U.N. condemns embargo

UNITED NATIONS _ Abandoned by close allies such as Canada and Denmark, the United States found itself more isolated than ever Wednesday as the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the continuing American trade embargo against Cuba.

The vote was 101-2 with 48 abstentions, the most lopsided vote against the United States since the General Assembly began voting on the issue two years ago.

Only Israel voted with the United States this time.

Although the resolution calls for an end to the embargo "as soon as possible," General Assembly resolutions are not binding on U.N. members, and no one expects the Clinton administration to comply.

Victor Marrero, one of the deputy American ambassadors to the United Nations, insisted the embargo was a bilateral matter between the United States and Cuba.

"We have made it clear, on many occasions, that reviewing our embargo depends upon whether the Cuban regime moves toward democracy and observes international norms regarding human rights," he said. "The human rights situation in Cuba remains grim. It has not improved."