HAVANA — Cuba's Communist Party opened a two-day conference Saturday to hold an internal debate on the future of the party, the possibility of political term limits and perhaps even a change or two at the top.
The closed-door gathering is a follow-up to last April's historic party summit where delegates green-lighted fledgling reforms, opening up long-shut doors of economic opportunity.
But while the government has essentially followed through on its economic promises — things like liberalizing home and car sales, expanding private-sector activity and offering loans to support farmers, entrepreneurs and homeowners — expectations were low that this weekend would yield any blockbuster announcements beyond what officials have already hinted at.
"The expectations were high because this conference was perceived as an act of continuity with relation to the 6th Congress, as a space to complete the economic adjustment with complementary political reforms," said Cuban-born economist Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver. "It became clear that that vision was unfoundedly optimistic."
President Raul Castro is presiding over the conference, which kicked off in the morning at a Havana convention center, state-run website Cubadebate said. Foreign journalists were not allowed access, and no plans were announced to broadcast parts of the sessions on TV.
Castro himself has dampened expectations for any big announcements, saying two weeks ago that nobody should have "great illusions about the conference" and the topics of debate were more "an internal question for the party."
According to a draft agenda that circulated last fall, one matter up for discussion will be Castro's call to limit officeholders including the president to two five-year terms, with the goal of achieving a "gradual renewal in leadership."
Over the years a number of rising young stars considered potential successors to Raul Castro, 80, and his brother Fidel, retired and largely out of sight at 85, have been unceremoniously fired. There are no obvious replacements waiting in the wings.
In April the younger Castro, who is also party chief, lamented the lack of politicians prepared to take over from the 70- and 80-somethings who occupy many top posts. Grooming new leaders would be a priority during his five-year term, he said.
Recently a Cuban official told The Associated Press that despite the lack of movement in visible roles like cabinet ministers, many midlevel government posts have quietly changed hands, with younger officials moving up. If true, that would bolster Raul Castro's claim that his government was laying the groundwork, albeit slowly, for generational change. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, and his assertions could not be independently confirmed.
Communist Party newspaper Granma said Saturday that delegates would consider how best to promote women, blacks and young people through the ranks of the party and government.
They will also evaluate the party's role in "the direction and systematic control of the process of updating the economic model and the progress of the economy," Granma said.
The draft agenda for the conference was discussed at thousands of local party and committee meetings and many of its objectives modified, Cubadebate said.
The Communist Party, the only party allowed in Cuba, does not have lawmaking powers but issues guidelines that are later taken up by parliament.
The conference's opening day was timed to coincide with the 159th anniversary of the birth of poet and independence hero Jose Marti, in whose honor Havana officials planned a 21-cannon salute from a historic fort overlooking the harbor.
But some said that's about all the fireworks they expect this weekend.
"The only thing that might be interesting is if they have some kind of election, to see who they put in the political bureau, especially if they put someone there who's not 80 years old," said Javier Blanco, a 32-year-old Havana resident. "Other than that... I don't think anything will come out that we don't already know."
Many Cubans were disappointed last month when authorities scuttled a proposal to eliminate the exit visa required for travel off the island.
Lopez-Levy said recent signals from Cuban leadership suggest there's no prospect for major political change in the near future.
"The Cuban Communist Party is going to make an adjustment to its internal life ... but it's not going to subject its political model to open debate on structural reforms as it did with its economic and social project," he said. "It's a low-risk strategy for the short term, but it could complicate the future."
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.
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