Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro made an unannounced appearance at the closing ceremony of a watershed Communist party conference on Tuesday, which adopted plans to reform the country’s economic model and refine the one-party system he had built.

Delegates chanted “Fidel, Fidel” as the 84-year-old was helped to his seat. He appeared in support of his brother and successor Raúl, who was elected head of the Communist party.

The four-day party congress was a crucial milestone for the younger of the Castro brothers as he tries to put in place a more market-oriented socialism, in hope that it will survive the passing of his generation.

The party summit ratified a package of more than 300 economic reforms. It also established a structure to set them up in the face of resistance from the bureaucracy and citizens anxious over plans to end subsidies for goods and some services, such as a second world war-style food ration, in favour of targeted welfare.

“These changes are classic Raúl: cautious, methodical and decisive. Revolutionary Cuba will never be the same,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who has watched Cuba for decades.

There were few changes in the party’s political leadership, with José Ramón Machado Ventura, 80, first vice-president of the government, named second secretary.

Only three new members were named to the political bureau, its other 12 members, including five generals, retaining their seats.

Since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel five years ago, Raúl, 79, has been methodical in his efforts to dismantle one of the last surviving Soviet-style systems and punch holes in the ideology and taboos that support it.

At the same time he has relied heavily on the old guard and military men to deal with a financial crisis and economic stagnation.

The Congress endorsed plans for a special party conference in January to address political questions raised by Mr Castro in his report to the meeting. These included the need for term limits and to get the party out of day-to-day running of the government and economy. It also passed a resolution calling for governmental reform at all levels of society.

Party sources said Mr Castro’s report signalled that a five-year public debate on the economy would now move into the more sensitive political realm. They expected a public discussion on political matters to precede the conference and a constitutional referendum to follow it.

The reforms approved by the Congress would free state businesses from party and government administration, move some 20 per cent of the state’s 5m workers to an expanding “non-state” sector, provide more space for market forces, authorise citizens to buy and sell homes and cars and gradually decentralise some decision-making.

The reforms, to be implemented over five years, would not eliminate central planning, but make it “more flexible”, while the government would move from administering the economy to regulating it mainly through “taxation”.

Mr Castro referred to the need for increased private initiative in the economic model he seeks to build. 

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