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Cuba marks Bay of Pigs

HAVANA: Cuba kicks off a crucial Communist Party congress on Saturday with a massive military and civilian parade to mark 50 years since the defeat of CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs, still celebrated here as a landmark triumph over the island's powerful neighbour to the north.

Officials have draped huge Cuban flags from government and other buildings; tanks practising for the big event have been rumbling down city streets and military planes have roared through the skies. Cannon fire from Havana's seaside ramparts has echoed periodically across the city.

Hundreds of thousands of people — from aging generals to factory workers — are expected to march through the capital. The festivities on Saturday culminate at Revolution Plaza, a vast concrete expanse where an iconic sculpture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara gazes down from the side of the Interior Ministry building.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma reported that tens of thousands of young people would march at the rear of the parade, calling it a demonstration of the continuity of Fidel and Raul Castro's 1959 revolution.

President Raul Castro has acknowledged that this year's Communist Party gathering is likely to be the last overseen by the brothers and those who fought with them a half century ago. Mr. Raul Castro is 79 and his brother Mr. Fidel Castro is 84. In speech after speech, Mr. Raul has said the time the revolutionary generation has left is short, but the work needed to put Cuba's economy on track immense.

Since taking over the presidency permanently in 2008, Mr. Raul Castro has turned over tens of thousands of hectares of fallow government land to small farmers, opened the economy to a limited amount of free enterprise.

Plans to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers have been delayed indefinitely, but Mr. Raul Castro has insisted they are still part of a larger five-year reform plan.

More details of that plan are expected to emerge from the four-day congress. Many Cubans are hoping the congress will expand the list of approved private enterprises and relax rules on buying and selling homes and automobiles, among other measures.

Yet Mr. Fidel Castro has vowed the changes are meant to improve Cuba's socialist system, not toss it out.

It is no accident that the congress, the first since 1997, is being held on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs triumph and Mr. Fidel Castro's April 16, 1961 announcement that the revolution would forever be socialist in nature. — AP

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