With their cradle-to-grave social services under strain, Cubans are being forced to think the unthinkable: children paying for school books, patients paying for surgery and workers paying taxes."We are walking over broken glass and at times we don't know where to put our feet," President Fidel Castro told the National Assembly Tuesday as leaders of the Communist nation debated ideas for solving an economic crisis.

The two-day session that ended Tuesday night gave a rare, public airing of ideas for saving Cuba's economy - ideas often radical by socialist standards. The parliament itself took no new action but paved the way for the government to impose new reforms in the weeks or months ahead.

Already hurt by the 31-year U.S. economic embargo, Cuba has lost 85 percent of its foreign trade since the Soviet bloc collapsed. Imports have plunged more than 60 percent. Workers have been put on short days, sent to new jobs or even left without work.

Finance Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez told the assembly that the purchase of goods and services in Cuba fell 35 percent since 1989. Government revenues have fallen while spending on social security and health have risen.

The government's deficit has jumped to 4.2 billion pesos from 1.4 billion four years ago, Rodriguez said, and that means even socialists have to find a place to cut. The peso is officially pegged at $1, but it brings less than 11/2 cents on the black market.

Castro promised to avoid "shock measures" that would hurt the poor. He has sworn to save the heart of Cuba's universal health and education services.

"I have a strong conviction in socialism and I will never renounce that," Castro told the Assembly.

But Rodriguez raised the possibility the government would have to start charging for school books and uniforms, for admission to museums and swimming pools, and for elective surgery.

He said subsidies to farms would have to be slashed. The government has already transformed thousands of state farms into closely controlled cooperatives that give workers a share of profits - a market-driven incentive Cuba had long tried to avoid.

Parliament deputies discussed raising prices, cutting unemployment benefits, imposing taxes and creating a new money to replace the peso.

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Cubans hold at least 10 billion pesos with which there is little to buy. That is 14 months' pay for the entire population, Rodriguez said.

"An average worker could stop working for more than a year without affecting his income . . . ," he said. "The excess of cash is a factor that discourages work."

Dire scarcities of nearly everything, combined with the huge amount of pesos in private hands, has fed a growing black market where goods sell at "exorbitant prices," he said.

Officials have ruled out a steep devaluation, which would wipe out the life savings of many Cubans. Hardest hit would be those most loyal to socialism, those without relatives in exile or contacts to dollar-earning businesses.

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