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A last hurrah for Cuba’s communist rulers

16 April 2011 Last updated at 09:58 GMT

A last hurrah for Cuba's communist rulers
By Michael Voss BBC News, Havana

Cuba's Communist Party is holding its first Congress in 14 years, and
for the country's ageing leaders it could be one of their last
opportunities to bask in the victories of days gone by.

The red flags are flying high in Havana. Buildings across the capital
are decked out with giant Cuban flags.

One of the largest military parades seen in decades is scheduled to pass
through Revolution Square, the symbolic political heart of the country.

The parade and Congress come exactly half a century after
proclaimed that his was a socialist revolution, rather than a democratic

His speech on 16 April 1961 paved the way for a centralised Soviet-style
and one-party rule.
Cuban soldiers rehearse for an upcoming parade to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the Bay of Pigs at the Plaza de la Revolution in Havana,
Cuba, Thursday April 14, 2011 Military prowess will be a big part of the

It came on the eve of the ill-fated landing by 1,400 CIA-backed Cuban
exiles, who were defeated by Castro forces at Bay of Pigs (or Giron as
the Cubans call it).

As a symbol of the revolution's future, thousands of youths will bring
up the rear of Saturday's parade.

But as 79-year-old warned last December, major
changes are needed if the system is to survive once the ageing
generation which led the revolution has gone.

"Either we change course or we sink," President Raul Castro said.

"We have the basic duty to correct the mistakes we have made over the
course of five decades of building socialism in Cuba."
Emerging entrepreneurs?

Cubans are greeting the prospect of change with a mixture of
anticipation and trepidation.

With wages barely $20 (£12) a month, there is enormous pressure to
implement economic changes that would allow people to earn a decent living.

Until now it has only been possible to survive thanks to
and the heavy subsidies on , health and .

But those handouts have bred a culture of dependency, with no incentives
to work, and Cuba's struggling inefficient economy can no longer afford
to be so generous.

The government has already launched a programme of allowing 250,000
extra people to become self-employed or set up small businesses with a
limited number of employees.

Almost three-quarters of these licences have already been issued; there
are small market stalls and cafes springing up across the island.

Congress is expected to endorse these changes, and there are hopes that
it could clarify issues such as micro-credits and expand the number and
types of jobs people are allowed to do.
Rules, permits, restrictions

In terms of economic impact, a potentially more significant change would
be to allow medium-sized state enterprises to become workers'
co-operatives, taking them out of the clutches of the central planners.
A worker arranges chairs for an upcoming parade to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the Bay of Pigs failed invasion at Revolution Square or
Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, Friday April 15, 2011 The Bay of
Pigs – or Giron – landing is the stuff of legend in Cuba

Such co-operatives are now well-established in , where market
reforms began at least three years ago.

It is unclear just how far the Communist Party is prepared to loosen
state control.

Legalising the right to buy and sell cars and houses, and to
abroad, are the bread-and-butter issues which will determine for many
Cubans whether this is a truly reforming Congress or not.

Cubans are famous the world over for their ability to keep old 1940s and
50s American cars running on the roads. The secret is necessity. Under
Cuban law the only cars that can be legally traded are those built
before the revolution in 1959.

Most Cubans have the title to their homes and can pass them on to their
children. But the only way to move home is to swap with someone. It is a
cumbersome, complicated system where money does illegally change hands,
including backhanders to the much derided state inspectors.

President Raul Castro has admitted that the system is a mess and
encourages corruption. How far he will go in asking Congress to move on
easing restrictions is far from clear.

Cubans need permission to leave the island. It is a deeply resented
restriction. For the moment, though, hopes that Congress will take the
initiative appear to be based more on wishful thinking than concrete
A new leader emerges?

Phasing out subsidies is seen as a key element turning the ridden
economy around. Some food and other items have already been taken off
the universal monthly ration card. The whole system is expected to be
abolished and replaced by some form of means tested benefit for those
most in need.

Overstaffing in state-run enterprises is seen as another major problem
which needs to be dealt with. Initially 500,000 workers were due to be
laid off or reassigned to more productive jobs before Congress, followed
by another million later on.
A self-employed Cuban man selling DVDs waits for customers on April 15,
2011 in Caimito, Mayabeque province Cubans are hoping for a more liberal
attitude towards small businesses

The whole process, though, has been put on ice. Alternatives are not in
place and the authorities appear uneasy about the political consequences
of a large number of disgruntled unemployed.

Congress may approve the concept but it could several years to implement.

There is one other major task which Congress is expected perform:
selecting new party leaders.

The Communist Party of Cuba is the only political organisation allowed
in this one-party state.

Constitutionally it is Congress which votes on the composition of a new
Central Committee, which in turns names the First and Second Party
secretaries, the two most important posts in the country.

President Raul Castro has to be the front-runner to take over from his
brother Fidel.

The real interest is in who will become Second Secretary.

Could a younger potential leader be about to emerge or will the question
of transition be put off once again with one of the trusted old guard
stepping in?

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