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In Cuba, Raul Castro has been making incremental reforms to the sputtering socialist system he inherited from his brother. And earlier this month, Castro announced plans to convene Cuba's Communist Party for its first Congress since 1997.

It won't be held until April but as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, Castro has already prepared a 291-point reform plan aimed at pulling the country out of economic crisis.

NICK MIROFF: A little blue booklet called "Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy" appeared in Havana's post offices and newsstands on November 9th. The few available copies were sold out in a matter of hours. The proposals it contains portend big changes to this island, though not too big. Their common theme: Cuba needs more market economics and a smaller, less bureaucratic government if the island's socialist system is to survive.

(Soundbite of music)

MIROFF: Even among the booksellers here in Old Havana's Plaza de Armas, the guidelines are nearly impossible to find. Where tourists browse shelves with Che Guevara's diaries, dusty copies of "Don Quixote" and 1940s issues of LIFE Magazine, bookseller Rafael Tamayo(ph) is one of the few to have read the proposals. He said they're an injection of market economics that will stiffen up Cuba's socialist backbone.

Mr. RAFAEL TAMAYO (Bookseller): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: It's time to stop, regain our footing and have a political and economic system more in line with the rest of the world's, Tamayo said. We know we can't spend more than we take in. We have to produce more and change the mentality that we're supposed to receive everything from the state, he said.

It will be a difficult adjustment. The food ration system, a cornerstone of the Cuban diet since 1962, will be phased out in favor of targeted assistance for the neediest. If state companies don't turn a profit, they'll be shut down and liquidated. The Castro government is laying off 500,000 state employees over the next five months and possibly another 800,000 after that.

Where will they work? Aurelio Alonso, the deputy editor of Cuba's Casa de las Americas journal, said the proposals are an attempt to address that.

Mr. AURELIO ALONSO (Deputy Editor, Casa de las Americas): We don't have a system, really. What is Cuba? We don't have a real system. It's a very chaotic construction here.

MIROFF: Castro said Cubans will have the chance to discuss the proposals in their neighborhoods and workplaces in the lead-up to the Communist Party Congress in April. No suggestion will be too sensitive, he said. According to Alonso, Castro is trying to make up for previous policy errors that went too far in eliminating the market.

Mr. ALONSO: We have to rediscover what are the element in the market mechanism that a socialist project has to keep.

MIROFF: The island will have a more mixed economy, with a larger private sector and new enticements for foreign investors. Cubans will be able to legally buy, sell and rent their homes. But the government's guidelines also state that central planning, not the market, will continue to guide the economy, and that no one will be allowed to get too wealthy in the new Cuba.

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said that's why the measures won't deliver the growth that Cuba needs.

Mr. OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE (Economist): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: These are changes designed to make sure that nothing really changes, Espinosa Chepe said. They're trying to maintain the old scheme with slight modifications. The mentality continues to be the same, he said - tight control by the state and the party.

There has been some speculation that Fidel Castro may use the occasion of the Congress to retire as the party's top official and bring in new leadership. But Raul Castro has said that the theme of the meetings will be Cuba's troubled economy, not its uncertain political future.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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