Cuba's Communist Party, the only political party permitted on the island, gathers April 16-19 to consider major free-market economic reforms and to elect a new leadership. The party is supposed to convene every five years, but more than 13 years have passed since the last one in October 1997. Past congresses have often been held at pivotal moments in Cuba's history.
The following is a look back at the five previous such gatherings:
_ Dec. 17-22, 1975: Ten years after the party's creation, delegates re-ratifed Fidel and Raul Castro as the organization's top two leaders _ as has occurred in every gathering since. Then-President Fidel Castro acknowledged economic mistakes. The Congress lent support to a new constitution that established the Communist Party as the guiding power behind the state.
_ Dec. 17-20, 1980: The discussion again centered on economic woes two months after the Mariel Boatlift, when 125,000 people fled for Florida after Fidel Castro said the revolution did not need nonbelievers.
_ Feb. 4-7, 1986: The debate focused on errors made in economic management, and the party expressed solidarity with the international socialist community and particularly the Soviet Union, Cuba's all-important ally and the source of billions in aid and preferential trade.
_ Oct. 10-14, 1991: On the eve of the USSR's formal dissolution, the party convened in the eastern city of Santiago. The party braced for the impending "Special Period," when the end of Soviet largesse caused extreme hardship and acute food shortages. Farmers' markets and some independent work are authorized. Officially atheist until now, the party decided to open up membership to the faithful.
_ Oct. 8-10, 1997: Held as the country emerged from near-economic ruin, Fidel spoke of Cuba's "bitter struggle" to survive in the face of Washington's trade embargo and the then year-old Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the sanctions. He acknowledged that GDP plummeted 34 percent following the fall of the USSR.