HAVANA Cuba's Communist Party meets on Saturday under pressure for the slow pace of promised market reforms as it prepares for a future without the octogenarian leaders who guided the country from a 1959 revolution to a cautious embrace of the United States.
The meeting is the Communist Party's first congress in five years and the first since President Raul Castro and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama announced they were to end decades of enmity and seek normal relations.
The party has been secretive about the agenda of the meeting, even by Cuba's opaque standards, triggering grumbling among younger members who have grown accustomed to a freer flow of information and contact with the world.
As well as the lack of discussion, party foot soldiers said they were worried that the country had not implemented quickly enough the sweeping market reforms adopted at the last party congress in 2011 to avoid economic collapse.
"The economic plan is still getting on track but it needs to accelerate," said Wilson Batista, who has been a party member for twenty years.
"The world's policies, the world's economy changes daily and we need to adjust ourselves exactly. We need to get on the world economic train."
Cuba has improved its financial credibility over the last five years, running trade and current account surpluses and restructuring $50 billion in mainly old debt, although harsh U.S. sanctions remain in place.
A nascent middle-class has emerged, making money from small businesses such as construction and hospitality. But in what one Cuban blogger called "paralysis at the cliff edge," the party has not relinquished control of trade or larger businesses.
ANOINTING A SUCCESSOR
The party has implemented about a fifth of the measures it adopted in 2011, and Cubans are eager for more, especially a unification of the country's two currencies and an end to the government's monopoly on imports and exports.
Many Cubans are tired of waiting, especially young professionals who are rarely allowed to set up private practices. With news from the outside world closer thanks to more Internet access and booming tourism, ever greater numbers are taking advantage of new freedoms to travel and emigrate.
The congress takes place three weeks after Obama made history as the first U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years and eloquently called for more political freedom and democracy in the one-party state.
His words are unlikely to be heeded, because the party sees itself as the greatest defence against Washington's past attempts to dominate Cuba.
Cuba's top leaders started their careers as young guerrilla fighters who overthrew a U.S. backed government in 1959, and a few years later repelled the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion - which the party congress is timed to commemorate.
Now, party chief Raul Castro is 84 and his top lieutenant in the party, José Ramón Machado Ventura is 85.
Castro is due to retire as president in 2018 and by the end of the four-day congress it will be clear whether he remains as party leader until 2021, or whether somebody younger takes over the leadership.
Founded in 1965, the Communist Party is seen as more powerful in Cuba than the government. It was formally led by Fidel Castro until 2011, although his younger brother had effectively taken command several years earlier.
(Editing by Mary Milliken)
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