Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- With a few taps of the hammer and some expertly placed glue, Elio Mendoza can extend the life of even the most well-worn shoes.

Now, he hopes the Cuban government can do the same for the country's sagging economy when it holds the first Communist Party Congress in nearly 14 years, starting on Saturday.

"It's up to the Congress to improve things," Mendoza says as he replaces the heel on a pair of red flats. "We need a new culture: If you work you get ahead. If you don't work, you lose."

Mendoza is part of a small, but growing class of micro-entrepreneurs, self-employed barbers, plumbers, taxi drivers and other artisans in a country where nearly 90 percent of the economy is still run by the state.

A former steelworker, Mendoza says he wouldn't go back to working for the state.

"It's better than before," he says. "Before it was, yes boss, no boss. Now I'm the boss."

President Raul Castro has begun the biggest shakeup of the Soviet-style economy in decades.

The government plans to eliminate more than one million state jobs-- a full 20 percent of the workforce -- by 2015.

At the same time, it has set down guidelines for the expansion of the private sector to soak up some of the unemployed, allowing Cubans to take out licenses for 178 different occupations.

Since November, more than 170,000 people have bought licenses, most of them related to food preparation.

High-end restaurants like El Carruaje offer imported cheese and wine and a gently gurgling fountain to attract tourists and big spenders.

But most new establishments are modest affairs.

Julia, who like several people interviewed for this story asked that her full name not be used, does a brisk business selling coffee and homemade éclairs at a stand in her driveway.

"It's a good place because we're across the street from the hospital," she says. "It's all about location."

Clients also line up for pizza and pastries at a private stall next door, while the state-run fish restaurant down the street stands empty.

"The private places are better quality, better price and better service," says Victor, a construction worker.

Even so, many of the newly self-employed have had to shut down within a couple of months, unable to pay state taxes.

Economic reforms will be the focus of the Congress that kicks off on Saturday, with a military parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cuba's victory over the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The summit will continue through Tuesday.

Castro has to ease concerns about massive layoffs in the public sector and encourage alternatives once scorned.

"We need to change the negative perception that so many of us have for this kind of private work," he said during a speech in December.

Castro insists the changes will not undermine Cuba's socialist system but help strengthen it.

"Either we rectify the situation or the time is up as we close in on the precipice," he said in the same speech. "We will fall and along with us entire generations will fall."

He called for Cubans to debate the proposed changes openly.

In the days ahead of the Congress, Cubans were doing just that.

"I'm not afraid to talk," said one man as he snacked on one of Julia's eclairs. "For years, the government was the only one who didn't want these changes. But they had to, because they were up to their neck."

For the construction worker Victor, more changes are still needed.

"Cubans also need the freedom to buy and sell their own home, paying taxes to the government, of course," he said.

A group of nurses standing outside the hospital said they also want to see improvements for the millions of Cubans like themselves who still do work for the state.

"Right now, I don't think the Congress is doing anything at all for people like us," one woman said.



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