Havana: Cuba`s Communist Party closed the first day of its national conference on Saturday with declarations of support for the burgeoning private-sector class, tough talk on corruption and vows to be attentive to islanders` complaints.
But there were no concrete resolutions on President Raul Castro`s call for political term limits or word on leadership changes during the closed-door gathering, a two-day follow-up to last April`s historic party summit where delegates opened up long-shut doors of economic opportunity by green-lighting fledgling reforms.
While the government has essentially followed through on its economic promises like liberalising 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 news beyond what officials already hinted at.
"The expectations were high because this conference was perceived as an act of continuity with relation to the Sixth 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."
Foreign journalists were not allowed access, and no major announcements were made through the island`s official media.
State-run website Cubadebate showed photos of President Raul Castro presiding over the conference wearing a gray blazer and a dark, open-collar shirt, with what appeared to be a small bandage on the tip of his nose. There was no word of any appearance by Fidel Castro, who was greeted with a standing ovation and some tears at the April congress.
In a brief snippet of video posted on Cubadebate, Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said in a keynote speech that the conference would focus on "the everyday work of the organisation”.
Raul Castro himself 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 his 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 said 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 authorised to discuss the matter publicly, and his assertions could not be independently confirmed.
Communist Party newspaper Granma said on Saturday that delegates would consider how best to promote women, blacks and young people through the ranks of the party and government.
They also evaluated 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. The purpose of the conference was to turn the agenda into policy in support of last year`s reforms, Machado Ventura said.
"Let us make our best effort to cast off obsolete mindsets of inertia and old prejudices," he said in comments broadcast on the news. "Let us work with responsibility and an eye toward the future, with the goal of strengthening the foundation of the (party`s) work."
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 honour a noontime 21-cannon salute thundered from a historic fort overlooking the Havana harbour.
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."