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Cuba approves political reforms

Communist Party delegates have given their blessing to a sweeping slate of economic changes designed to breathe life and a bit of free-market spirit into Cuba's moribund economy, and also voted in a new party leadership at a historic summit.

State television announced the unanimous approval of about 300 economic proposals in a full session of the Party Congress, but it did not give details.

President Raul Castro is widely believed to be in line to take over as the party's first secretary from his brother Fidel, but all eyes are on the selection of the number two position, which could signal the Castros' choice of an eventual successor.

More details are expected when the summit closes with a speech by Raul Castro. While the Party Congress does not have the power to enact the changes into law, the suggestions are expected to be acted upon quickly by the National Assembly over the coming days and weeks.

Officials called the gathering to set a new course for Cuba's economy and rejuvenate an ageing political class largely made up of octogenarians who led Cuba's 1959 revolution. An official photograph shot inside the spacious convention hall where the party confab was taking place showed Mr Castro placing his vote inside a ballot box.

Fidel and Raul Castro have held the top two spots in the Communist Party since its creation in 1965. In March, Fidel, 84, announced he had resigned as first secretary of the party when he ceded the presidency to Raul several years ago, although the party's website still lists him as its leader.

In a speech opening the Congress, Raul warned that a new generation is needed to take over when the old guard is gone. He even proposed term limits for officials including the president - a taboo subject during the half-century in which Cuba has been ruled by either him or his brother. The goal is to create opportunities for younger politicians to get experience, Raul said.

The speech intensified speculation the job might go to someone such as Lazaro Exposito, the young Communist Party chief in Santiago de Cuba, or Marino Murillo, the former economy minister who has been put in charge of implementing the economic reforms.

Divided into five committees and meeting behind closed doors, party delegates considered more than 300 proposals for economic changes, many of which were first announced last year. They affect sectors from agriculture and energy to transport and taxation, and let many Cubans go into business for themselves in private ventures.

Nevertheless, officials have stressed that the changes are meant to "update" Cuba's economic model. State TV repeated last night that their objective is to "guarantee the continuity of socialism in Cuba".

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