**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY DEC. 28** Monies are counted at a Stokvel meeting in Nhlazuka, South Africa, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008. The savings and loan club, known as stokvels, have worked fro generations in South African villages and townships. Neighbors gather, each contributes a small sum, and can draw loans from the pot, often kept in a members home instead of a bank, for necessities like school uniforms or emergencies like a doctors visit. (AP Photo/John Robinson)

A controversial R350-million “economic assistance package” SA plans to give to Cuba sparked heated debate in Parliament on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, the portfolio committee on trade and industry ratified – by a single vote – an agreement entered into after President Jacob Zuma visited the country last year.

The deal includes a R100m “solidarity grant” – which will not have to be repaid, in addition to a loan of R250m.

The loan includes R40m to purchase seeds – of which R5m must be spent on SA seeds – and a further R210m in tranched loans.

While the ANC cited Cuba’s solidarity with the liberation struggle in SA as reason enough to justify the package, opposition parties highlighted Cuba’s human rights record and said the money could have been better spent on pressing needs at home.

Trade and industry portfolio committee chairwoman Joan Fubbs (ANC) said the deal consisted of three parts, the first of which was the R40m in aid to buy seeds, “to feed the people there – to grow things”.

The second part was the R100m solidarity grant, “And may I say that raised such a furore. Solidarity! Yet you hear it all the time in the European Union”.

The last “facility” was R210m in credit lines “and these are a loan, actually. We’re not talking of a grant. A loan – which is expected to be repaid to South Africa”.

“And I do think… we need to remember those who remembered us and supported us, in our hour of need. And that is why this House now sits today, under the constitution of South Africa.”

But DA MP Geordin Hill-Lewis said:

“Cuban law limits freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement and the press. Human Rights Watch has documented evidence of systematic human rights abuses in Cuba, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment and extrajudicial executions.”

If the ANC wanted to “betray its history” of standing for democracy, it was free to do so, but “this Parliament should not”.

“If the ANC wants to support Raul Castro then it should use Chancellor House money to do so. It should not make South Africa pay for its friendship with the Castro regime,” Hill-Lewis said.