Spotlight on Cuba's future at last party congress of Castro era

Victor Rodriguez imagines a future Cuban economy that will let him import large quantities of thread, export the women's clothing he designs and keep him from worrying about obtuse regulations such as where he can place items on his small retail stand.

For now Cubas roads are still filled with vintage American cars, but tourism from America is starting to build up. Picture: Getty Images

“Maybe then I could think about opening a full store,” he said.

A month after President Barack Obama’s visit, islanders are now looking to Cuba’s forthcoming Communist Party congress for the clearest picture yet of how far their leaders will open the economy to deeper free-market reforms – if at all.

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The congress being held from 16-19 April comes at a critical juncture in Cuba’s history, with diplomatic relations with the US generating enthusiasm but bringing limited improvements to the island’s ailing economy.

It’s also likely to be the last party congress with any Castro in power as President Raul Castro has said he intends to retire in 2018 when he will be 85.

His elder brother Fidel stepped aside at age 79 in 2006 in what he said was a temporary move after suffering a serious illness and retired for good two years later.

“This is basically setting the future of Cuba,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The congress has already generated much attention with party members complaining about a lack of the advance debate on economic and social reforms seen in the past.

The party’s official newspaper, Granma, published a lengthy article explaining that instead of inviting new public discussion of reforms, this year’s congress will focus on the continued implementation of market-oriented changes enacted in 2011 in Cuba’s most significant economic overhaul to date.

“Everybody’s wondered since 2011, what’s the end game?” said William LeoGrande, an American University expert on US-Cuba relations. “What are they anticipating Cuba will look like when the restructuring is done? Will it look like Vietnam? China? Something else?”

Based on the Marxist-Leninist model, the Communist Party of Cuba is the only legal political party on the island. It holds its congress roughly every five years to map the island’s political, social and economic future – except for a 14-year stretch from 1997-2011.

The latest congress will bring together 1,000 party members from throughout the island to discuss Cuba’s plan going forward. Among the things members will consider this year is a description of the island’s economic development model until 2030.