HAVANA — Real economic reform or mere window dressing? Cubans on Monday reacted with hope, anxiety and resignation ahead of the Communist Party Congress's adoption of economic reforms meant to save the country from bankruptcy.
The hope, said Carlos Perez, 74, who has spent 22 years as an economist, is that "if all goes according to plan, there's no question that we'll succeed.
"Raul is on the right track, determined to make things happen," he said, referring to Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel Castro during his elder brother's health crisis in 2006.
Cuba on Saturday opened the nation's sixth Communist Party Congress with Raul calling for a maximum of two five-year terms for the country's top government and political roles.
A US State Department spokesman described the change as "potentially an important step in the right direction."
The 1,000 delegates gathered in Havana for four days were also expected to officially relieve 84-year-old Fidel of his position as head of the Communist Party.
Raul, who turns 80 on June 3, would become the party's new first secretary.
Mikaela, the 28-year-old owner of a small beauty salon in the old city of Havana, was hopeful the economic reforms would "give us the means to work and earn a living.
"That is all we need," she told AFP.
Hope, however, was also mixed with doubts. "What is important," said 43-year-old Amarilis Bersaqui, is that "whatever we decide, that is has concrete results. Like Raul says, we cannot repeat the errors of the past."
"Raul has dotted his 'i's, and his self-criticism of what the government has done in the past is very important," added Bersaqui, 43, who worked for the customs bureau in Havana. "We cannot lose hope, but there has to be change. We have to finally see some results."
The government has said the Congress will formally enshrine many economic reforms that have already been adopted over the past year. Such changes are desperately awaited in a country where the average salary is $17 a month, domestic food production is a problem and corruption is widespread.
But many Cubans, like 80-year-old Fidelina Hernandez, are worried.
"I don't think they will immediately get rid of the 'libreta,' even though folks have been talking about that a lot," said Hernandez, referring to the ration cards which since 1963 have allowed Cubans to buy bread at cheap -- and heavily subsidized -- prices.
"Raul has reassured people that whatever the government has to do, there can't be any misunderstanding," added Hernandez, who earns 245 Cuban pesos ($11.36) a month sweeping the streets of Havana's old city.
For 72-year old housewife Enriqueta Dominguez: "The 'libreta' is Cuba. Without it, many Cubans would face starvation."
Among the economic moves put on track in 2010: Havana is eliminating 20 percent of state employees.
But the president rejected the sort of broad, market-minded reforms that have been embraced in China.
Proposals to the Congress of that sort were, Raul said, "in open contradiction to the essence of socialism... because they were calling for allowing the concentration of property."
Many Cubans are worried that the economic reforms mean they will lose the job security long guaranteed by a paternalistic state.
"What will happen if my son loses his job as a librarian?" wondered Carlos, a retiree who said his son's salary helps support his entire extended family.
There was resignation as well.
Herminia Diaz, 40, who left a career as an engineer and now rents out her house to earn a living, said she was not optimistic and had trouble believing that change would actually come.
"What we have to do is deal with the facts," she said. "I like Raul's frankness in dealing with our problems, but when you think that they have been going on for 30 years and that we've done nothing to resolve them, you just lose hope. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, that we've wasted all these years."
Some, like 76-year-old Ernesto, want to ditch the whole system. "For me, I don't like communism. But I don't think any good will come from this congress, we've lived like this for 50 years. Why would anything change?"
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