Cuban economy, internet on party agenda ahead of Castro exit

Havana (AFP) –


A dire economic crisis and the "subversive" nature of the internet were on the agenda Saturday and Sunday as a historic congress of the Communist Party of Cuba meets ahead of longtime leader Raul Castro's departure from power.

Some 300 delegates from across the country are gathered in Havana for the congress, which began Friday and is being held behind closed doors.

Castro, 89, will step down as the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) first secretary -- the most powerful position in Cuba -- ending a near six-decade family hold on power that started in 1959 under his revolutionary brother, Fidel, who died in 2016.

The official handover of power to the first non-Castro is expected on the fourth and final day of the congress on Monday.

In the meantime, the delegates have been divided into three working committees to focus on the economy, "ideological activity," plus the party and leadership promotion.

Most urgent on the agenda is the economy, which plummeted by 11 percent in 2020 -- the worst decline since 1993 -- thanks in no small part to recent strengthening of the US embargo and the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, in his last major speech as party head, Castro called for "revitalizing the process of updating the economic and social model," an initiative he began in 2008 with the cautious opening of the private sector and foreign investment.

Cuba, with a population of approximately 11.2 million, faces recurrent shortages and must import 80 percent of what it consumes for lack of sufficient local production.

Nonetheless, Castro warned Friday that "there are limits that cannot be crossed" as the economy opens "because the consequences would be irreversible and would lead to strategic errors, to the very destruction of socialism."

- Social network 'subversion' -

Another touchy subject in Cuba is the mobile internet, which arrived on the island at the end of 2018 and has strengthened citizens' demands for civil society and is even used by some to encourage demonstrations, previously unheard of in the country.

On Saturday, some 20 activists, independent journalists and artists said on Twitter that they had been prevented from leaving their homes by police, a technique commonly used by authorities to prevent dissident gatherings.

Slamming social networks for "subversion" and the propagation of what he called fake news, Castro said the platforms spread "a virtual image of Cuba as a dying society with no future, on the point of collapse, giving out under a social explosion."

The notion, which he said was favored by the United States, demands "urgent transformation... on the ideological front."

Ties with the United States, after a historic but temporary easing of tensions under president Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016, worsened under Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions.

Castro will pass the reins to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has already served as Cuba's president since 2018.