By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA - A Communist Party summit set to start this weekend on the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion offers Cuba's aging leaders a last hurrah to celebrate the victories of their past, and perhaps a final chance to salvage their revolution's future.
Part pep rally, part nostalgia tour, part leadership shake-up, the Sixth Party Congress is designed to consecrate the once-unthinkable free market economic changes enacted by President Raul Castro as the country's only path to prosperity.
Even the 79-year-old president acknowledges it will be the last such gathering under the island's graying old guard - and they have a lot riding on its success.
"The Sixth Party Congress ought to be, according to the laws of nature ... the last in which those who make up the historic generation will be present," Castro told Cuba's parliament in December. "The time that we have left is short, and the work that we have to do is gigantic."
Already, Castro has pushed reforms that allow islanders to get licenses to work in 178 approved private enterprises, a limited but significant departure for a Marxist economy where the state employs about 80 percent of the work force, and controls virtually all means of production.
More than 180,000 Cubans have taken up the call to go into business for themselves, Vice Labor Minister Jose Barreiro told The Associated Press in a rare interview Thursday, putting the country on pace to shatter its stated goal to issue a quarter of a million new licenses by the end of 2011.
"We've seen a very high demand (for the licenses)" Barreiro said. "That tells us that there is interest and that people believe the way we are implementing (the changes) is attractive."
Barreiro acknowledged that around 30,000 licenses had been returned, but said that was normal given the fact that not every new business can succeed. He would not say what new economic measures might be authorized at the Congress, but indicated the gathering would make clear that socialism and private enterprise are compatible.
Cubans impatient for more economic opportunities hope the summit does more than that. In a country awash in rules and regulations, many of them contradictory, islanders can run off a laundry list of desired changes.
Delegates to the congress will be working off and ultimately asked to approve a revised list of guidelines for economic change that has been circulating since last year. Many of the guidelines have reportedly been altered to reflect the input of ordinary Cubans in thousands of meetings held across the island, but any changes have been a closely guarded secret.
Some Cubans hope the party will expand the number of approved private enterprises, others that leaders will give more details about promised bank credits for fledgling businesses. Some want the state to legalize the sale of cars and homes - mostly frozen since shortly after the 1959 revolution. Others say the key to the economic opening is the creation of mid-sized businesses and cooperatives, which still face steep limitations.
"We need to improve the economic system to overcome the hurdles we face," said Osquer Palacio, a car mechanic in historic Old Havana who said he struggles to get by on a salary of less than $20 a month, despite Cuba's system of deep subsidies for housing, health care and education. "We need to make things better for the population so that we can live off the wages we earn."
Other Cubans say they are fed up with government promises and done hoping for change from Cuba's longtime leaders.
"The Congress? I don't expect anything to come of that," said Juana Rojas, a 66-year-old retiree in the leafy Miramar section of Havana. "These are the same dogs with different collars. This has been going on for 50 years and I'm tired of it."
In addition to the economic changes, the congress also has the task of electing a new party leadership, including someone to replace 84-year-old Fidel Castro as first secretary. The revolutionary icon revealed in March that he effectively stepped down from the party after he fell ill in 2006, and has never returned - despite the fact the Communist Party's Website continues to list him as leader.
Raul Castro is widely expected to move up to the top party spot, but there is speculation the brothers could pick a fresh face to take Raul's old job as second secretary. If they do, it could signal their preferred choice of an eventual successor.
The four-day congress kicks off Saturday with an enormous military parade through Revolution Plaza featuring tanks, helicopters, fighter planes, and even the famous yacht Granma, which carried Fidel and Raul Castro back from exile to launch their guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista.
Saturday also marks the date in 1961 when Fidel Castro announced in Havana that the revolution would from that day forward be socialist in nature. Fidel's speech came at a funeral for seven Cubans killed a day earlier in a U.S.-backed air campaign to soften up targets ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which began on April 17, 1961.
After the parade, a thousand party delegates will ensconce themselves inside a Havana convention center to hear a speech by Raul Castro, start discussions on the revised economic guidelines, and elect new party leaders, all of which is expected to be announced when the congress closes on Tuesday.
While delegates don't have the power to sign the new economic measures into law, their recommendations will quickly be acted on by parliament under the direction of the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body.
Historically, party congresses were meant to occur every five years - but they have often been delayed. The current meeting is the first to be held since 1997.
Past meetings have taken place at times of deep crisis for Cuba, like the fall of the Soviet Union that ushered in a period of deep economic hardship on the island. But observers say this congress is even more crucial, with an octogenarian leadership racing against Father Time to face down an existential economic threat.
"What is happening in Cuba is a great crusade of rectifying errors, suppressing absurd prohibitions and eradicating flawed ideas," wrote Angel Guerra Cabrera, a political analyst based in Mexico, in an opinion piece that was surprisingly republished in Cuban state-media earlier this year. "Essentially, the modernization of the economic model has become a question of life and death."
Associated Press reporters Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.