Cuba to chart economic future at party congress

PAUL HAVEN - Associated Press
Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, raises the arm of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez while checking his watch as Cuba's Vice-President Ricardo Cabrisas applauds at the end of a meeting in Havana, Cuba, Monday Nov. 8, 2010. Castro announced that Cuba will hold a long-delayed, and much-anticipated, Communist Party Congress next April and leaders will use the meeting to chart a new economic future for the island while Venezuela's socialist leader vowed to continue supporting the Cuban revolution both economically and politically. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
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Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, raises the arm of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez while checking his watch as Cuba's Vice-President Ricardo Cabrisas applauds at the end of a meeting in Havana, Cuba, Monday Nov. 8, 2010. Castro announced that Cuba will hold a long-delayed, and much-anticipated, Communist Party Congress next April and leaders will use the meeting to chart a new economic future for the island while Venezuela's socialist leader vowed to continue supporting the Cuban revolution both economically and politically.

Cuba's economic future will be hammered out next April at a make-or-break Communist Party Congress, and President Raul Castro says any idea for pulling the island out of its deep malaise will be on the table — no matter how sensitive.

The congress, which last took place in 1997, is traditionally used to announce major policy changes. It is supposed to be held every five years, but has been delayed repeatedly as Cuba grappled with a change in leadership and a serious financial crisis.

There has been intense speculation that the future of former president Fidel Castro's role as Communist Party chief might also be discussed at the congress, though Raul Castro made no mention of his brother in his speech Monday.

"The Sixth Party Congress will concentrate on a solution to our economic problems," Castro said.

He said that the meeting will "make fundamental decisions on how to modernize the Cuban economic model and adopt the paths for economic and social policy of the party and the revolution," and that preparations for it would begin immediately.

He added that the summit, which will take place in the second half of April, will deal with every imaginable idea for economic progress.

The Cuban leader spoke at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of an economic pact under which Venezuela, which has become Cuba's most important patron, sends the island billions of dollars worth of oil every year.

He was joined by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who vowed to continue supporting the Cuban revolution both economically and politically, as the two countries reaffirmed the pact for another decade.

Chavez praised Castro for having the vision to shake things up.

"Raul's courage in modernizing socialism must be recognized," he said, adding that his government would "accompany" the island going forward.

Since taking over from his ailing brother in 2006 — first temporarily, then permanently — Raul Castro has pursued a series of major economic reforms. In September, Cuba announced it was laying off a half million state workers while opening up new opportunities for citizens to start private businesses. Those layoffs are due to be completed by the end of March, just weeks ahead of the congress.

Castro has also begun to roll back the deep subsidies Cubans have come to rely on.

Most citizens make just $20 a month in state-run jobs, but receive free education and health care and nearly free housing, transportation, utilities and basic food. The Cuban leader has said the state can no longer afford the outlays and accused his countrymen of believing they should get paid even if they don't do any work.

Still, he has made clear he has no intention of fully embracing a free market economy.

Despite the bold changes, Raul Castro remains an enigmatic figure to many Cubans, toiling in the shadow of his larger-than-life brother for decades before taking the helm. Even as president, he prefers to work behind the scenes, speaking in public only when absolutely necessary.

Although no longer president, Fidel Castro remains leader of the Communist Party and is still referred to as "commander in chief." After four years out of the public eye, the 84-year-old former leader burst back on the scene in July and now makes frequent appearances to discuss world affairs, particularly his fear that a nuclear confrontation between the United States, Israel and Iran is inevitable.

Before his health took a turn for the better, many speculated Fidel would step down from his party position at the next party congress. He has not tipped his hand either way.

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Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.