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Castro opens party congress with tribute to Che

Fidel Castro

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October 8, 1997
Web posted at: 9:41 p.m. EDT (0141 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) -- A gaunt Fidel Castro opened Cuba's Communist Party congress Wednesday with a tribute to the legendary guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara, his former revolutionary comrade who was killed 30 years ago in Bolivia.

"The memory, the spirit, and the unforgettable presence of Che are presiding over this Fifth Party Congress," said Castro in an opening address that lasted 6 hours and 40 minutes.

Guevara, Castro's right-hand man in the struggle that led to Cuba's 1959 revolution, was captured by Bolivian troops October 8, 1967, while leading an abortive uprising in Bolivia.

Although he was executed the following day, the Argentine-born doctor has become an icon for leftists around the world and is still revered in Cuba.

His image decorated the wall behind the podium along with portraits of Cuba's father of independence Jose Marti, revolutionary hero Julio Antonio Mella and communist thinkers Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

'Che' Guevara

Guevara's remains were returned to Cuba earlier this year and will go on public display in Havana Saturday. Later, they will be transferred to the city of Santa Clara for a funeral ceremony and burial on October 17.

"Che at this moment in Cuba, would have contributed to raising consciousness and mobilizing the people, especially the younger generations that did not live through the heroic period we did," says Manuel "Red Beard" Pineiro, a member of the party's central committee.

Cuba struggling during 'special period'

What Cuba is living through is called the "special period." It is a time of rebuilding the impoverished economy following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Soviet subsidies that propped up the Cuban regime.

During his speech, Castro described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "something terribly hard in all aspects for our country and our revolution."

The state news agency AIN quoted Castro as saying, "We had to fulfill the promise that we would resist, we would fight and we would win, even if we were left absolutely on our own."

AIN was quoted since independent media are not allowed to attend the congress.

Cuban street

In their first meeting since 1991, the party's 1,500 delegates will spend three days charting the country's political and economic course for the next five years.

It is expected to be a course which party officials insist must emphasize unity and continuity, not change. Few Cubans are expecting miracles.

"I think something is always accomplished, even if its only a little," says a Cuban woman questioned on a nearby street.

"In our concept of a sole party, the party is not just for elections," says vice president Carlos Laage. "The party is an organizing force in society. It wasn't created for an electoral campaign."

Social inequality, crime a problem

While major changes have been ruled out, the congress has a lot on its agenda. Among other things, it must confront the problems of growing social inequality, prostitution and crime, all without deviating from communism.

The gathering, representing the party's 780,000 members, is also bound to raise questions about the 71-year-old Castro's continued leadership, even if it is not voiced at the meeting.

Castro has cut back his public schedule and diplomats who saw him at a reception late last month remarked at his thin, almost frail appearance.

He is commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the party and president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers. There has been speculation that he may give up one or more of these posts at some point in the future.

Correspondent Lucia Newman and Reuters contributed to this report.

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