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By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA, Cuba, Fri. April 16, 2021 (Reuters) – Cuba’s Communist Party kicked off a historic four-day congress today that will see the last Castro exiting the political stage after six decades of rule by brothers Fidel and Raul following their 1959 leftist revolution.

Raul Castro has signaled he will step aside as Communist Party first secretary, the most powerful job in Cuba. The congress takes place every five years for the organization to review policy and name its leadership.

The next generation of leaders in one of the world’s last Communist-run countries will have no easy task.

The meeting of hundreds of party delegates takes place as Cuba faces the worst economic crisis since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union, and there are signs of growing frustration, especially among younger Cubans.

“My generation does not want to take the dull path of my parents’ generation,” said Havana resident Guillermo Estrada, 31, adding he had no idea what would arise from the congress as it was all so secretive.

“I wish for a better future without so many internal and external restrictions.”

New U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated a liquidity crisis in the ailing centrally planned economy, which was already struggling following a decline in Venezuelan aid.

That has led to shortages of even basic goods, with many Cubans spend hours lining up to buy groceries.

The dire situation has pushed the government to speed up the implementation of long-planned reforms, which have proven painful. A monetary overhaul this year sent inflation soaring four or fivefold, according to economists.

Havana has dollarized much of the economy, leaving those who do not receive remittances from family abroad or who did not earn hard currency from tourism struggling to get by. That has eaten away at equality, a pillar of the party’s legitimacy.

“The party congress is taking place in one of the most complex situations the revolution has had,” said Cuban economist Omar Everleny.

Social reforms Raul Castro took after inheriting the party leadership from his brother Fidel in 2008, in particular the expansion of internet on the island, have opened up society.

Cubans are increasingly expressing criticism on social media while online non-state media are challenging the state monopoly of mass media. Tight control of public spaces by the authorities means protests are still relatively rare and small-scale, but they are on the increase nationwide.

All this is expected to make the task much harder for the next generation of leaders, who did not fight in the 1959 revolution and will have to prove themselves to retain popular support, say analysts.

Castro is expected to hand the top job to his protege Miguel Diaz-Canel, to whom he passed the presidency in 2018.

Cuba experts will carefully scrutinize other senior party appointments to assess whether Diaz-Canel will have backing to speed up the reforms – decentralization, autonomy for state companies, and reducing bureaucracy for private firms – demanded by economists.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

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