By Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is poised to enter the post-Castro era with Raul Castro due to step down as head of the ruling Communist Party at its congress this week, which will also address the island's severe economic crisis, pandemic response and signs of growing dissent.
Castro, 89, and his late older brother Fidel have successively ruled Cuba ever since leading a 1959 revolution that toppled a U.S.-backed dictator and installed a Communist-run country on the doorstep of the United States.
The congress, which takes place every five years, is the Communist party's most important meeting electing party leadership and setting policy guidelines. Raul Castro said at the 2016 congress it would be the last one led by the so-called "historic generation" of revolutionary veterans.
The new generation of younger leaders is not expected to make sweeping changes to Cuba's one-party, socialist model. But it will be under pressure to pursue further market-style reforms to the long-ailing, centrally planned economy, Cuban analysts said.
The April 16-19 congress comes as Cubans battle worsening widespread shortages of basic goods, including food and medicine, after a liquidity crisis was exacerbated by a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.
Hints on the reform path to come could be delivered at the meeting, the analysts said. But many Cubans say they are not hopeful much will change any time soon. Guidelines around the first moves to open the economy, announced in 2011, have still only been 70% implemented, according to the party.
"A lot of my generation feel frustrated with the pace of change," said Jorge Quintana, 35, a Havana resident standing in an hours-long queue for detergent. "Many have emigrated looking for a new path."
Castro is expected to hand over the leadership of the Communist Party, the most powerful position in the island nation of 11 million, to protege Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, who in 2018 already inherited the presidency.
Diaz-Canel is under pressure to deliver results to retain support because he does not have the moral legitimacy of the historic generation, the analysts said.
Social reforms over the past decade, in particular the expansion of Internet access, have strengthened Cuban civil society. Small protests have cropped up nationwide lately despite tight control by authorities of public spaces.
Some dissidents at home and abroad say the time for democratic change has come and are urging U.S. President Joe Biden, who promised during his election campaign last year to ease sanctions, to keep the pressure on.
HARDLINERS VS REFORMERS
Hundreds of party delegates elected by card-carrying members will discuss the update of Cuba's economic model as well as other matters like online "ideological subversion" and the pandemic, party newspaper Granma wrote in March.
Cuba, which prides itself on its healthcare, has one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the region. It also sent thousands of doctors to help other countries and has two homegrown vaccines in late phase trials. Still, the congress coincides with a time of rising cases - over 900 new infections a day.
However, the economy remains Cuba's top challenge, Diaz-Canel was cited as saying by Granma.
The economy shrank 11% last year as the pandemic devastated tourism. The crisis has already pushed the government to resume economic reforms, most notably a painful monetary overhaul.
"The strategic economic changes were defined in the two previous congresses," said Cuba expert Arturo Lopez-Levy of the Holy Names University in California. "Now it's fundamentally about discussing how to implement them."
Diaz-Canel has sought to win the party's trust with his government's catchphrase "We are continuity," said Lopez-Levy.
The party's divisions derive not so much from a generational gap as disagreement between reformers and those who fear less state control of the economy means less political control, said former Cuban diplomat and analyst Carlos Alzugaray.
Alzugaray said he hoped the congress would show the party was prepared to take bolder reforms, widely backed by Cuban economists, involving decentralizing the economy, giving state enterprises greater autonomy, and allowing the private sector to work unfettered.
Raul Castro, meanwhile, would retire but not disappear, he said.
"He will stay as a figure," Alzugaray said. "The final port of appeal in the case of any conflict that may emerge."
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)