Ray Sanchez | Direct from Havana
7:27 AM EDT, April 29, 2008
The political and economic course of Cuba after Fidel Castro could be
charted when the Communist Party convenes its long-delayed congress next
year, the first assembly of the party's highest body since 1997.
Raul Castro, 76, who officially assumed the island's presidency in
February, made the announcement Monday during a Central Committee
meeting in which he also said the new government would commute all death
sentences except for three people charged with terrorism.
The three prisoners, whose sentences are under appeal, include two
Central Americans sentenced for bombings that killed an Italian tourist
at a Havana hotel in 1997.
While previous congresses of the only political party recognized in Cuba
have occurred without major policy change, the upcoming gathering comes
at a historic time.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since 2006, though he and his
brother insist that the ailing 81-year-old is still consulted on major
issues. The elder Castro officially remains head of the party as its
first secretary but his role in party affairs is unclear.
Additionally, next year's congress will take place following modest
social changes introduced by the younger Castro in order to make life
easier for Cubans long frustrated with banal restrictions and economic
The fourth party congress in 1991, when Cuba was still reeling from the
collapse of the Soviet Union, set the stage for economic and political
reforms, such as the creation of small private businesses.
"We have worked hard in these past few months, and will have to do so
even more," Raul Castro during the meeting, parts of which were taped
and aired on state television last night.
Castro, wearing a traditional white guayabera shirt, said the communist
island's new leadership must "ensure the continuity of the revolution
once its historical leaders are no longer present."
An electoral victory by the "far right in the United States, Castro
said, could promote "a climate of instability and violence" against Cuba
and the world.
The congress is scheduled for the second half of 2009. No date was set.
In addition to choosing the party's first and second secretaries – posts
historically occupied by Fidel and Raul Castro, respectively – the
congress will name the 24-member Politburo and the policy-making Central
Raul Castro did not say how many prisoners would have their death
sentences commuted. He said most cases involved common crimes. Human
rights observers estimate that there are at least 50 people on death row
"We have not made this decision under pressure but as a sovereign act as
a consequence of the humanitarian and ethical conduct that has always
characterized the Cuban revolution," Castro said, adding that the death
penalty would remain in the books.
The last executions in Cuba were carried out in the April 2003, when
three men faced the firing squad for trying to hijack a ferry with 50
people on board.
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