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Are Cuba's Communist Leaders Ready For Life Without Castro?

Cuban President Raúl Castro (left), Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés (center) and Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel sit side by side at the Artemisa Mausoleum monument in July 2014.

José Ramón Fernández will probably never attend another Communist Party Congress. At 92, he's the oldest delegate to take part in the four-day meeting of Cuba's top communist leaders that convenes on Saturday.

With the island's closed economy slowly opening to the world and relations with the United States warming, you'd think the 92-year-old's attendance at an elite gathering that could determine Cuba's future wouldn't be front page news. But that was one of the few peeks into this year's congress revealed in Cuba's official newspaper Granma. As of Friday morning, no official agenda had been published, no government initiatives revealed, and no public forums held. It was a rare level of opacity even by the standards of the island dictatorship.

"This congress is much more closed than any previous ones," says Omar Everleny, one of Cuba's leading economists. Foreign media outlets, including NPR, were not granted visas to cover the congress, which is expected to offer some clues for the regime's plans for the next decade.

Excitement that new reforms and even more opening of Cuba's state-run economy might be unveiled in the congress has been growing alongside the improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations. That furor escalated after President Obama's historic visit to the island last month, when he urged Cuba's aging leaders not to fear, but to embrace change.

This year's meeting will most likely be Cuban President Raúl Castro's last. At 84, he has already said he will relinquish the presidency in two years. But it's unclear whether he and his elderly compatriots will allow for a younger generation to take over the ruling Politburo. The average age of the 14-member body is 70.

And just how fast — or slow — the pace of economic opening will continue is anyone's guess. During the last Congress held in 2011, landmark reforms gave Cubans new rights to own businesses, homes, cars and even to travel off the island. A quarter of the island's people now participate in the private sector.

Economist Everleny says state enterprises, which still control the lion's share of the economy, need to keep up with the times and modernize. "They need to be refreshed, they aren't efficient," he says. "They must change."

Initiatives announced during the last Congress in 2011 haven't fared that well. Only 21 percent of those guidelines have been fully implemented. And three quarters of the population still struggle to survive on the average $25 monthly salary.

Small businesses complain that they need access to state-controlled wholesale markets if they are to survive. And private enterprises clamor for access to export and import trade.

"Expectations and frustrations are high and becoming more vocalized," says Peter Kornbluh, co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

Kornbluh says the Cuban leadership could muddle through a few more years without significant changes, but they won't be able avoid addressing the people's rising expectations. "That's the rub," he says.

The intense secrecy surrounding the congress has significantly lowered hopes for the amount of change that party leaders may tolerate. Recent Cuban editorials and television roundtables criticizing Obama's visit have cast a pall over the meeting, signaling that party hardliners may have the upper hand.

And Friday's Granma announced that a surprise last-minute delegate would be attending the congress — 89-year-old former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

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