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, President Raul Castro announced Monday.
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 deep economic crisis.
There has been intense speculation that the future of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro's role as party chief might also be discussed at the congress, though Raul Castro made no mention of his brother in the speech.
"The Sixth Party Congress will concentrate on a solution to our economic problems," Castro said.
|Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, waves to the crowd next to Cuba's President Raul Castro during a meeting in Havana, Cuba, Monday Nov. 8, 2010.|
He said 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 would deal with every imaginable idea for economic progress "no matter how sensitive."
The Cuban leader was joined by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose country sends the island billions of dollars worth of oil every year and has become Cuba's most important patron. Venezuela's socialist leader vowed to continue supporting the Cuban revolution both economically and politically, as the two countries reaffirmed for another decade an economic pact first signed in 2000.
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 as it moved 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.
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 has chastised his countrymen for being the only people on Earth who believe they should get paid even if they don't do any work.
Still, he has made clear he has no intention of rolling back socialism or 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.