2:26pm

Fri April 15, 2011
Latin America

Cubans Await Communist Party Reforms

Cuba is set to hold a Communist Party Congress starting this weekend — its first since 1997.

Its main purpose will be to ratify Raul Castro's reform plans for the island's failing economic model. But it's not clear how far the changes will go.

There's only one party in Cuba's political system, and it's supposed to hold a congress every five years. So when the communist gathering kicks off Saturday morning with a massive march and military parade, it will be long overdue, but also timed with a particular symbolism in mind. It comes exactly 50 years after Fidel Castro's victory over U.S.-backed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

In preparation for Saturday's march, workers at Havana's sprawling Plaza of the Revolution tested the speaker systems with the folk songs of Silvio Rodriguez and unloaded lumber for makeshift stages. A huge banner as wide as a baseball field hailed "The Victory of Socialism" at the Bay of Pigs.

With Fidel Castro retired and his younger brother easing the state's grip on the economy, it's not so clear anymore what the government means by socialism. This party congress will attempt to define it, with Raul Castro's reform proposals aimed at thinning government bureaucracy, cutting foreign debt and creating new individual incentives to work in a place where the average state salary is about $20 a month.

"We are passing from socialism A to socialism B," says Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban magazine Temas. "Socialism B is a less state-centered model of socialism. It is expanding the nonstate sector, which means not only private, but cooperative. The cooperative side, the social property equivalent to cooperatives, is a very important area."

Small Businesses And Cooperatives

Worker cooperatives and small-scale private business are supposed to absorb hundreds of thousands of excess state employees whom the government has started laying off.

Since October, authorities have handed out more than 170,000 new self-employment licenses to entrepreneurs like 26-year-old Ydelis Diaz. She has a small store set up in the doorway of an apartment building just two blocks from the Havana intersection where Fidel Castro famously rallied Cuban militias during the Bay of Pigs invasion, declaring that Cuba had carried out a "socialist" revolution right under the Yankees' noses.

Fifty years later, Diaz is just trying to sell enough super glue and hair dye to make ends meet. She sits under a parasol beside two tables loaded with beauty products, cleaning supplies and cheap knickknacks.

She says she likes interacting with customers and selling things — she's helping herself and also helping others.

Diaz's small-business philosophy sounds a lot like the government's evolving definition of socialism — moving toward a more open model that attempts to balance elements of the market with a strong welfare state that's still tightly controlled by the party.

Running Out Of Time

The Castro government is running out of time, so it has no choice but to make such changes, says Miriam Leiva, a former Cuban diplomat who is now a dissident writer in Havana.

"The government knows that most of the leaders are very old, that they're not going to be for a long time alive — it's natural," she says, "and that they have to reconstruct what they have destroyed during 52 years, and also create the possibilities for others to govern, to bring about the changes, and to give more opportunities to the Cuban people."

Cubans will be watching closely to see how far the reforms will go, and if restrictions on things like buying and selling homes and cars will be lifted.

With Raul Castro preparing to formally replace his brother as the Communist Party's first secretary, Cubans also will be watching to see who is named No. 2. It could be a younger party leader from Cuba's provinces, a technocratic economic planner or a trusted guerrilla comrade from Raul's inner circle.

But for the first time in decades, it won't be a Castro. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.