A new Cuban model
For much of the last week, the world's media have focused on the outcome of Cuba's Sixth Communist Party Congress which took place in Havana from April 16 to 19.
Most of their coverage focused on the time limits that will now be placed on the leadership's period in office, the right in future of Cubans to buy and sell houses and cars, and the election of a smaller but not much younger politburo.
Irrespective of this, far more important and challenging decisions were taken.
What the one thousand or so participants in the Congress did was endorse a new Cuban model of governance and economic organisation: one intended to encourage a form of competition accompanied by personal responsibility, that aims to improve productivity and efficiency while retaining the planned and social nature of Cuban society.
The most significant indicator of this changed approach was a decision to delink the relationship between the Communist Party and the Government in order to decentralise and separate economic management from political direction.
The Communist Party will, as Raul Castro bluntly told delegates, be "stripped for all time of all functions that are not part of its character".
"Membership in a political organisation should not be a precondition for holding a leading position with the state or the Government," he added, after criticising the "unspoken premise" that a person had to be a member of the party or the Young Communist League to hold a leading position.
A clear distinction must be made between the roles of the party and the state, he said, intimating that the former's powers should not stretch beyond its moral authority and its influence on the masses.
This is a decision that may have far-reaching consequences for the future of Cuba. Apart from removing unspoken rights and privileges from party members in the workplace, what is proposed decentralises economic responsibility to managers and assigns the party the role of political and social direction.
In a sense, it seems to take Cuba in its own way closer to the Vietnamese 'doi moi' model if, as seems likely, there will soon be greater interest in encouraging well-considered export-linked foreign investment.
The other key decisions include the Congress' endorsement of the government's sometimes contentious and now revised new guidelines on future economic and social policy; the announcement that Cuba will maintain the primacy of planning over market forces; a changed role for the media; and the first steps towards establishing a basis for an eventual succession to Cuba's present leadership.
The final draft guidelines on economic and social policy have yet to be made widely available. However, what is clear is that they are intended, as President Castro uncompromisingly put it, to dismantle "the paternalist state" by reducing a "bloated" public sector.
They involve the loss of up to one million state jobs, ending the ration card system, expanding the non-state sector primarily through self-employment, and closing down loss-making state companies.
Under the new approach, power will be devolved from central to local government, and state-run companies will be decoupled from the party with ministries being given greater operational autonomy.
However, it is clear from what has been said that this should not be mistaken for a market-driven model but one in which planning will have primacy.
"The excessively centralised model ... shall move," President Castro said, "toward a decentralised system where planning will prevail. The lesson taught by practical experience is that an excessive centralisation inhibits the development of initiatives in the society and in the entire production line."
In a clear acknowledgement of the failure of previous attempts at reform and the critical nature of what will happen if this new approach fails, President Castro made clear to delegates that whatever they approve must not suffer the same fate as the previous agreements, "most of them forgotten and unfulfilled".
The Congress, the first in 14 years, was expected to provide clues on the future shape of the leadership of the Government. What it did instead was to indicate the paramount role of those who will guide the process of change, the now central role of the military and the rise of a small group in their 50s to the highest political levels of the Cuban state.
Progress towards implementation of the new economic model will, it seems, take at least five years and will be monitored at biannual meetings of a Central Committee that is much changed, is now younger and broader in composition than was previously the case, and which provides interesting clues to the characteristics and background of the individuals who will become future leaders.
As for the sale and purchase of housing, all that happened is the acknowledgement that the existing system of property exchange had become corrupt and needed remedying. As President Castro more generally observed, the new economic approach was not an opportunity for, in its broadest sense, the concentration of property.
But will it work? Will Cuban people inside or outside of the party be able to adapt to what is envisaged? How will rank and file party members in future relate to a system that has previously given them precedence in the workplace? Is there enough here to satisfy either an alarmed older generation looking forward to a peaceful retirement after more than 50 years of struggle and sacrifice, or for a younger generation still socially committed but who know the way that the world is and want more materially? Can the Government's decision to decentralise the control of production really ensure a balanced national transition enabling subsidies to be gradually removed while wages (and taxes) are slowly increased?
If recent initiatives have failed, including attempts to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers, because of the vested interests of party members and lethargy, breaking the mould of dependency and inertia seems questionable.
So, too, is handing responsibility to managers, unless they are to be given the incentive, perhaps over time, of being able to take rational advantage of all of the efficiencies offered by a well-regulated national market.
The outcome of what is now envisaged will affect the rest of the region for many years to come. How the new Cuban model will evolve lies in the hands of the Cuban people.
David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.