updated 4/29/2008 1:13:53 AM ET 2008-04-29T05:13:53

President Raul Castro announced Monday that Cuba will convene its first Communist Party congress since 1997 — a gathering that could chart the island's political future long after he and his older brother Fidel are gone.

Castro also said the government within weeks will commute death sentences for several inmates. The prisoners are likely to include two Central Americans sentenced for planting bombs, one of which killed an Italian tourist, in Havana tourist locales a decade ago. Capital punishment will remain on the books in Cuba.

The congress — planned for next year — follows a series of minor social changes the younger Castro has decreed during his first two months in power to make life easier and less restrictive for ordinary Cubans.

"We have worked hard in these past few months, and will have to do so even more," Raul Castro said during a Central Committee gathering aired on state television. He said the nation's leadership must prepare for "when the historic generations are no longer around."

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he first fell ill and relinquished interim powers to the 76-year-old Raul. He stepped down as president in February, but officially remains head of the party as its first secretary.

His post could be awarded to someone else at the congress, scheduled for the second half of 2009. An exact date has not been set.

The congress also likely will replace some members of the party's select 24-member Politburo and the larger policy-making Central Committee it heads.

Setting a new path?
Castro, who wore a white tropical dress shirt, said the commutation of the death sentences was a gesture of good will, but he did not say how many prisoners would be affected.

Castro said most cases being studied involved common crimes. But he said the government also was reviewing the death sentences of Ernesto Cruz Leon and Otto Rene Rodriguez Llerena, arrested in 1997 after allegedly planting a series of bombs.

"We have not made this decision under pressure but as a sovereign act as a consequence of the humanitarian and ethical conduct that has always characterized the Cuban revolution," Castro said, adding that Cuban policies have "always been motivated by a sprit of justice but not revenge."

The Communist Party is the only one Cuba legally recognizes, and is virtually indistinguishable from the government, with all of the same major players.

The party congress in 1997 set general policy for five years but made no major changes in Cuba's political course, instead dedicating much of its debate to demanding greater efficiency from state farms and factories as Cuba struggled to spark its moribund economy.

That was a drastic change from the fourth party congress in 1991, when Cuba was still recovering from the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That meeting helped open the way for modest economic and political reforms, including the direct election of parliament, a rapprochement with churches and creation of small-scale private businesses.

Much of the Communist Party's leadership consists of men and women who were children _ or not yet born — when Castro's revolutionaries toppled a dictator and marched into Havana in January 1959.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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