Cuban soldiers march in a parade in Revolution Square in Havana commemorating… (Desmond Boylan, Reuters )
Reporting from Mexico City — With a huge military parade and amid high public expectation, Cuba's ruling Communists on Saturday convened an extraordinary congress that will shape much of the island nation's future.
The Cuban Communist Party opened its four-day gathering — its first in 14 years and only the sixth meeting since the revolution 52 years ago — to examine and endorse crucial economic reforms launched by President Raul Castro.
The congress will also appoint a new team of party leaders, with Castro at the helm but, possibly, with a smattering of less-familiar faces as Cubans begin to contemplate a Cuba without Raul and his brother, Fidel, the leader of the revolution.
The congress, Raul Castro said in announcing it last year, "should be, as a fact of life, the last to be attended by most of us who belong to the revolution's historical generation.
"The time we have left is short."
Raul turns 80 in June; Fidel, who has gradually relinquished the reins of power since falling ill and nearly dying in 2006, is 84.
On Saturday, military helicopters and fighter jets crossed the skies above Havana as soldiers in tanks and personnel carriers, followed by a mass of flag-waving youths, veterans and workers, paraded through Revolution Plaza to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Raul Castro, dressed in olive fatigues, oversaw the parade, waving a straw hat at the multitude.
"Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live the Communist Party of Cuba!" an announcer called out to shouts of approval.
Opening the congress on the Bay of Pigs anniversary was symbolic, harking back to a time of promise and unity when Cuba's ability to defeat the invading forces marked a high point in the Castro regime.
"As the revolution begins a very significant transformation, the message is: 'Just because we're changing doesn't mean that we're casting off our nationalism and our revolutionary ethos,'" Julia E. Sweig, author of several books on Cuba, noted in a posting on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, where she is a fellow.
Still, she said, Raul Castro is "the strongest advocate I know of inside the government for taking steps to make Cuba a more open society, and not just on the economic front."
The congress will examine 291 economic "guidelines" that Raul Castro proposed over the last year or so, described in a series of speeches that, in rather blunt terms, pointing out the need for modernizing and transforming the Cuban economy.
"Either we change course, or we sink," he said at one point.
The reforms — or "updates," as Castro apparently prefers — are the most ambitious in decades, and the government is said to have accepted an unprecedented amount of public input. Cubans are increasingly willing to speak out about the shortcomings of their nation's struggling economic system.
The reform plans include eventually laying off about 10% of a bloated public workforce and permitting tens of thousands of small-scale private entrepreneurs to run their own businesses. Money-losing state enterprises would gradually be shorn of expensive subsidies.
All told, the package represents the most significant move by Cuba toward a mixed economy since the revolution.
The state has employed about 85% of the workforce, and a state worker earned just $20 a month, on average, but got by with many government subsidies, which Castro has suggested the country can no longer afford.
"An entirely new design of how the government should work is being created," Andy S. Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute of Cuba and Cuban-American Studies, said in a telephone interview.
But, he said, "from the moment the reforms are approved, Raul has six months to a year to improve the basic needs of the Cuban people. More food, basic shelter … more jobs.… And the question remains, will economic reforms, without political change, be enough for Cuban society to accept?"
Indeed, political change in Cuba has been more modest. The Havana government has released numerous jailed dissidents and shown itself more willing to tolerate criticism. But deeper change in the one-party political system does not appear to be in the offing, and questions swirl about possible heirs to the Castros.
A sign may come in the congress, which concludes Tuesday, if any official is elevated to a position of prominence. One name to watch for is that of former Economy Minister Marino Murillo, whom Castro named to oversee the reforms.
As Castro opened the congress Saturday afternoon, with an estimated 1,000 Communist Party delegates, he proposed term limits for future leaders. But he also made it clear that change will go only so far. He dashed the hopes of many Cubans of being allowed to buy and sell private property, saying that idea had been rejected.
"The only thing that can threaten the revolution and our socialism is our inability to overcome our errors," Castro said. "It is a good time to generate new ideas. … Correct ideas."