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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This weekend, Cuba hosts a major Communist Party Congress, the first since 1997. Its main purpose will be to ratify Raul Castro's reform plans for the island's failing economic model.

But as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, it is unclear just how far those changes will go.

NICK MIROFF: There's only one party in Cuba's political system, and it's supposed to hold a congress every five years. So when the communist gathering kicks off Saturday morning with a massive march and military parade, it will be long overdue but also timed with a particular symbolism in mind. It comes exactly 50 years after Fidel Castro's victory over U.S.-backed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

(Soundbite of music)

MIROFF: Here at Havana's sprawling Plaza of the Revolution, workers tested the speaker systems with the folk songs of Silvio Rodriguez and unloaded lumber for makeshift stages in preparation for Saturday's march.

A huge banner as wide as a baseball field hails the victory of socialism at the Bay of Pigs.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

MIROFF: With Fidel Castro retired and his younger brother easing the state's grip on the economy, it's not so clear anymore what the government means by socialism. This party congress will attempt to define it, with Raul Castro's reform proposals aimed at thinning government bureaucracy and paternalism, cutting foreign debt, and creating new incentives to work in a place where the average state salary is about $20 a month.

Rafael Hernandez is the editor of the Cuban magazine Temas.

Mr. RAFAEL HERNANDEZ (Editor, Temas): We are passing from Socialism A to Socialism B. Socialism B is a less state-centered model of socialism. It is expanding the non-state sector, which means not only private but cooperative. The cooperative side, the social property equivalent to cooperative, is a very important area.

MIROFF: Worker cooperatives and small-scale private businesses are supposed to absorb the hundreds of thousands of excess state employees who the government has started laying off.

Since October, authorities have handed out more than 170,000 new self-employment licenses to entrepreneurs like 26-year-old Ydelis Diaz. She has a small store set up in the doorway of an apartment building just two blocks from the Havana intersection where Fidel Castro famously rallied Cubans militias during the Bay of Pigs invasion, declaring that Cuba had carried out a socialist revolution right under the Yankees' noses.

Fifty years later, Diaz is just trying to sell enough super glue and hair dye to make ends meet.

Ms. YDELIS DIAZ: (Speaking foreign language).

MIROFF: I like talking to customers and selling things, said Diaz, sitting under a parasol beside two tables loaded with beauty products, cleaning supplies, and other cheap knickknacks. We're helping ourselves and also helping others, Diaz said.

Diaz's small business philosophy sounds a lot like the government's evolving definition of socialism, moving toward a more open model that attempts to balance elements of the market with a strong welfare state that's still tightly controlled by the party.

The Castro government is running out of time, so it has no choice but to make such changes, says Miriam Leiva, a former Cuban diplomat who is now a dissident writer in Havana.

Ms. MIRIAM LEIVA (Writer): The government knows that most of the leaders are very old, that they are not going to be for a long time alive, it's natural. And that they have to reconstruct what they've destroyed during 52 years and also create the possibilities for others to govern, to bring about the changes and to give more opportunities to the Cuban people.

MIROFF: Cubans will be watching closely to see how far the reforms will go and if they'll lift restrictions on things like buying and selling homes and cars.

With Raul Castro preparing to formally replace his brother as the communist party's first secretary, Cubans will also be watching to see who is named number two. It could be a younger party leader from Cuba's provinces, a technocratic economic planner or a trusted guerilla comrade from Raul's inner circle. Either way, for the first time in decades, it won't be a Castro.

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

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