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​Cuba's Communist Party meeting may be last with revolutionary leaders

HAVANA --Cuba's ruling Communist Party, which sets the guidelinesfor foreign and domestic policies in this one-party state, will hold a four-day congress beginning Saturday morning with the delivery of a Central Report, presumably by Party First Secretary Raul Castro.

There is no foreign press access to the event that will bring together 1,000 delegates and 280 invited guests, according to the party's daily newspaper Granma. There has been no discussion, either public or inside the party organization, about the documents to be reviewed in the event.

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Party congresses are supposed to be held every five years. The last congress, in 2011, was preceded by an extensive nationwide debate on the guidelines for Cuba's economic and social development as it seeks a new form of socialism that will pull the Cuban economy out of the doldrums and resolve critical social issues such as a housing shortage, inadequate pay, faltering production and lack of cash for investments in crucial economic sectors.

According party officials, 21 percent of the reforms laid out in the guidelines have been implemented and the upcoming congress will take up the continuity of their application. An full-page editorial in Granma responding to criticism over the secrecy surrounding the reports to be discussed in the next four days said there was nothing new that hadn't already been amply gone through by the population, including non-Party members, in 2011.

However, in organization meetings at the grassroots level, there have been numerous questions raised and complaints voiced. People note that their experiences over the last five years have changed their perspective on how many things should be done to improve the economy.

They point to the changing political situation in Latin America where Cuban allies such as Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina have taken sharp political turns. And public employees gripe about their worsening standard of living with prices of basic necessities beyond the reach of their state-determined wages.

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Not to mention the biggest change on the international scene -- Cuba's reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States and the visit of President Barack Obama less than a month ago. Although a major policy shift, this new status has yet to result in any economic benefits for the island beyond the influx of U.S. visitors that are straining Cuba's hotel and transportation capacities.

Even the emerging private sector -- one of the successful reforms launched by the last congress -- faces an uphill battle, as promised wholesale markets for needed supplies never materialized.

Feeding the population and supplying hotels and restaurants enjoying a boom in tourism have become two of the largest unresolved issues facing the party stalwarts as they meet.

In agriculture, farmers find it impossible to obtain seeds and tools under current government policies. State buyers often operate without the trucks needed to pick up crops, leading to harvests rotting in the fields and along the roadside. Popular Cuban beers like Cristal and Bucanero have disappeared from shops as the industry admits production has not been able to keep up with demand.

Commentators on Cuban TV have raised the chicken or the egg question -- asking if wages must be raised first in order to encourage workers to do their jobs, or if production must increase before the State can pay enough for the average worker to put food on the table.

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There is a general feeling that more public input is needed before the party congress makes a decision on the country's economic direction. People question if 1,000 delegates -- a minority of a minority group --should have a stranglehold on what the country will look like by 2030.

According to Granma, the oldest delegate to this congress is 92 years old, a hero of the Bay of Pigs battle. The youngest is 27. Their average age is 48, with 55 delegates under the age of 35. Forty-three percent of the attendees are female and 36 percent are non-white.

The newspaper claims that the elevated age of a majority of the delegates is only logical, since such an event requires the most experienced participants.

Remaining to be seen is the composition of the Party Central Committee, Political Bureau and First and Second Secretaries, which are yet to be elected. Membership of these bodies will be announced on Tuesday before the Congress closing.

While Cuban President Raul Castro has announced he will be stepping down from the presidency in 2018, he has not voiced any intention to give up his position as First Secretary of the party, the power behind any and all of the country's leaders.

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