Cuban communists approve landmark econ reforms

 Cuba's Communist Party approved landmark economic reforms on Monday and voted for new leaders in a key party congress to chart Cuba's future, state-run media reported.

The Caribbean island's highest political body selected new First and Second Secretaries, its Central Committee and powerful Political Bureau, but the results would not be disclosed until Tuesday's closing session, Cuban television said.

The reforms represent the biggest changes to Cuba's struggling, Soviet-style economy in decades and are aimed at securing the future of socialism in one of the world's last communist states.

The congress' approval had been widely expected because some of the reforms, such as allowing more self-employment and leasing of state land to private farmers, are already in place.

Delegates attend Cuban President Raul Castro's address inaugurating the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana April 16, 2011

The reforms include slashing more than a million government jobs over the next few years, cutting subsidies, encouraging more private initiative, giving more autonomy to state companies, encouraging more foreign investment and reducing state spending.

Under President Raul Castro's plan, which included more than 300 reforms, one of the trademark features of the paternalistic socialist system -- the universal monthly food ration -- will be gradually phased out for those who do not need it.

Castro said on Saturday the ration given all Cubans since 1963 had become an "unsupportable burden" for the cash-short government trying to rationalize its finances.

Cuba spends heavily on food imports, but hopes to increase food production by decentralizing agriculture and increasing the role of private farmers.

The reforms also include a widely hoped-for call for allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes for the first time in many years, although it remains to be seen whether restrictive regulations will accompany the change.

There is home ownership in Cuba, but at present houses can only be swapped, not sold, although under-the-table payments often are involved.

While President Castro wants to ease the state's grip on the economy, the reforms will not make it disappear. They call for a planned economy and keeping the country's principal means of production in state hands.

In the party leadership vote, President Castro was expected to replace older brother Fidel Castro as First Secretary, but the other posts will be closely watched for up-and-coming new party bosses to replace aging leaders.

The leadership issue has overshadowed the reforms since Raul Castro said in a speech on Saturday the government was considering limiting future leaders, including himself, to two five-year terms.

After taking power in the 1959 revolution he led, Fidel Castro, 84, ruled for 49 years before resigning the presidency in 2008. Raul Castro, 79, was his defense minister for all that time and replaced him as president.

A number of others in the leadership are in their 70s and 80s. The age issue is a concern because President Castro wants to ensure the survival of Cuban socialism after they are gone, but he admitted on Saturday they had done a poor job of grooming possible successors.

Fidel Castro gave his support for the reforms in a front page column in the Communist party newspaper Granma, saying he had listened in on meetings on Sunday and was impressed.

"The new generation is called to rectify and change without hesitation all that must be rectified and changed, and to continue demonstrating that socialism is also the art of making the impossible happen," he said.

He described "the impossible" as "building and bringing about the revolution of the poor, by the poor and for the poor, and defending it for half a century from the most powerful military power that ever existed," referring to the United States. This is a long-standing maxim of the nationalist Cuban Revolution.

Fidel Castro has not yet attended the congress. Foreign media have not been allowed in to the working sessions.

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