Cuba approves economic changes at party summit

HAVANA (AP) — Cubans hoped to get details Tuesday of the sweeping economic changes and new leadership choices their government approved in closed-door meetings as the Communist Party held its last day of talks, to be concluded with a closing speech by President Raul Castro.

With Castro widely expected to take over from his brother Fidel as the party’s first secretary, all eyes will be on the selection of his new No. 2, which could signal a possible favored successor.

Delegates approved about 300 economic proposals in a unanimous vote Monday — including a measure that apparently recommends legalizing the buying and selling of private property.

Also on the table was a proposal to eventually eliminate the monthly ration book, which provides Cubans with a basic basket of heavily subsidized food and other goods. Other measures envision providing seed capital for would-be entrepreneurs and eliminating the island’s unique dual-currency system.

Among those who voted in favor was former leader Fidel Castro, who along with his brother was named a delegate to the Congress.

“The economic policy (approved here) follows the principle that only socialism can preserve the victories of the revolution,” said Marino Murillo, an ex-economy minister in charge of implementing the reforms.

Cubans were treated to a two-hour broadcast on state-run television late Monday of Communist Party committee members debating the finer details of the package of proposals, which have not yet been made public, although they are based on ideas that have been discussed extensively in recent months.

Delegates could be seen referencing subclauses by number and flipping through pages in front of them, as projectors juxtaposed close-ups of original and revised texts.

At one point, a committee discussing changes to agricultural laws voted on a small change in the wording of a sentence covering artificial insemination of livestock.

“We need to emphasize in the guideline that we should be aiding genetic development and artificial insemination,” said one delegate.

“We are in agreement with the proposal,” another committee member replied, before the discussion turned to ways to spur greater milk production.

The Party Congress does not have the power to enact the changes into law, but the suggestions are expected to be acted upon quickly by the National Assembly over the coming days and weeks.

Officials called the gathering to set a new course for Cuba’s economy and rejuvenate an aging political class composed largely of octogenarians who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

On Monday, an official photograph shot inside the spacious convention hall where the party confab was taking place showed Castro placing his vote inside a ballot box. “Candidacy for Members of the Central Committee,” it read. A box that said “Vote for All” was checked on the ballot, indicating that Castro had approved an entire slate of candidates, though their names were not visible.

Fidel and Raul Castro have held the top two spots in the Communist Party since its creation in 1965. But at this year’s Sixth Party Congress, there is an air of mystery surrounding the leadership vote.

In March, Fidel, 84, revealed that he had resigned as first secretary of the party when he ceded the presidency to Raul several years ago, although the party’s website still lists him as its leader.

In a speech opening the Congress this weekend, Raul warned that a new generation is needed to take over when the old guard is gone.

He even proposed term limits for officials including the president — a taboo subject during the half-century in which Cuba has been ruled by either him or his brother. The goal is to create opportunities for younger politicians so they can gain experience, Raul said.

The speech intensified speculation the job might go to someone such as Lazaro Exposito, the young Communist Party chief in Santiago de Cuba, or Murillo, who has had a leading role in Congress.

In a long opinion piece that appeared in state-run newspapers and websites Tuesday, Fidel Castro said he was all for the term-limit proposal made by Raul, despite the fact that he himself ruled the island for more than 47 years.

“I like the idea (of term limits),” Fidel wrote. “It is a subject on which I have long meditated.”

The revolutionary icon says that while in power, “I must confess I was never very worried about how long I exercised the role of president … and first secretary of the party.”

The former leader also said he was glad that Raul put the names of their aging revolutionary comrades on a list of potential new party leaders, but that their inclusion was purely honorary, and that both men knew it was time to elect younger leaders — particularly women and Cubans of African descent.

Fidel said his brother had shown him his proposals days before sharing them with the Congress, an apparent effort to counter any rumors that the two men disagreed.

“He shared (the report) with me several days ago on his own initiative, just as he has with many other subjects without my asking him,” Fidel wrote.

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