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Cuba kicks off Communist Party Congress slated to mark the end of the Castro era

By ADRIANA BRASILEIRO | The Miami Herald | Published: April 16, 2021

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Communist Party leaders in Cuba kicked off a four-day event Friday in which Raúl Castro is expected to retire from politics as the regime his brother spearheaded over six decades ago faces a crushing economic crisis and mounting social tensions.

Delegates gathered at Havana's Convention Palace for an opening ceremony before launching into discussions about Cuba's Soviet-style economy and reforms adopted in the 2011 party congress that have still not been entirely implemented. Images shared on the party's website showed Castro walking into the convention center's main auditorium wearing a face mask and his customary olive green uniform to a standing ovation.

The gathering is billed as a "Congress of Continuity" in which there will be a "gradual and orderly transition" of responsibilities to "new generations," per the official invite. Castro stated at the last congress five years ago that he would step down as first secretary general in 2021. The top party job is considered a more powerful post than president.

The changing of the guard would leave Cuba without a Castro at the helm of the government for the first time in more than six decades and could complete a generational transitional that has been in the works for years to bring younger voices to the podium. Díaz-Canel, 60, is widely expected to step in as party chief.

The party is under increasing pressure to come up with solutions to improve life on the island as Cubans grow frustrated of waiting in hours-long lines for increasingly scarce goods. But few expect a major shakeup even with a transfer of leadership.

"They may address the crisis, they probably will recognize some of the issues, but the congress is not a space for discussion," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American attorney who advises companies doing business in the island. "Don't expect any significant debate."

The gathering comes as Cuba grapples with a deepening economic crisis, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has paralyzed tourism, as well as Trump administration sanctions. A painful currency reform earlier this year has fueled inflation, leading some prices to rise as much as 500%. Meanwhile, more Cubans have access to social media, where complaints are rife and an emerging civil society is sharing its message and demanding reform.

Diáz-Canel — who was born after the 1959 revolution — is a regular on YouTube and Twitter, an attempt to connect with the island's younger and increasingly connected population. He is a long-time government technocrat who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. Since becoming president in 2018, he has hewed closed to the country's one-party system while also trying usher through some modest but slow economic reforms.

In the only interview he has given yet to the international media, he told Spanish-language network Telesur that one of his government's priorities is to improve communication with young people, calling social media full of "perverse" content that can hurt the revolution.

"It's necessary now to flood social media with our own content, with content that elevates our country," he said in 2018. "It's necessary for the revolution. That's what Fidel did with young people, he would go to them and connect directly with them."

In the days before the congress, two high-ranking ministers were replaced: The head of the armed forces and the chief of the island's agricultural agency. Authorities also announced several economic reforms, including one that would allow Cuban ranchers to sell beef after meeting state quotas, something that has not been permitted since the early years of the revolution.

Andy Gomez, a Cuba scholar and former senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the leadership replacements were potentially part of a generational change not just within the party but the military as well.

"The Cuban regime's main concern is protecting political control," he said. "They are doing this because they have prepared those who will be taking control."

Though a detailed agenda has not been released, the event's convocation highlights topics like the pandemic's impact on the economy and the need to increase food production. It also mentions the need for closer ties between the state and private sector, stating that Cuba's industry must "increasingly respond to domestic demand."

Communist Party newspaper Granma said that for almost a year, a commission of party representatives, grassroots organizations, academics and researchers have worked to prepare documents that will be reviewed by the delegates during the congress.

Delegates will evaluate the over 300 economic proposals ushered through in the 2011 congress in what was considered the most significant reforms in decades, among other topics.

Images in state media showed delegates arriving in Havana Wednesday night, wearing masks and red T-shirts as they entered a hotel in the conference complex. Official reports said that COVID-19 public health guidelines such as temperature checks were being implemented.

Meanwhile, members of the island's nascent civil society were calling on Cuba's leaders to open the debate on the island's future to a more diverse range of voices. Using the hashtags #LuzdeAlarma (Alarm Light) and #PCCnoesCuba (Communist Party Congress isn't Cuba), protesters called on Cubans to turn on the flash on their mobile phone cameras, take a picture of themselves and post it online as a rejection of the party's continuity slogan.

"It's undeniable that Cubans want change, but the regime continues to repress and deny citizen participation," activist Rosa Maria Payá posted on Twitter. "The Communist Party Congress can't decide the future of the nation because Cuba belongs to everybody."

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