Raul Castro schedules party congress for next year

MIAMI &mdadsh; Cuban leader Raul Castro has put an end to his country's nearly two-year "provisional'' period and announced that the Communist Party will convene next year for its sixth congress — the first such gathering since 1997.

The party congress will take place sometime in the second half of 2009, according to an announcement made on Cuban television Mondaynight and reported in state-controlled media Tuesday.

The end of the provisional period marks a return to a more institutionalized power structure. Cuba has been functioning in a provisional modesince Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006. Raul Castro was formally named president in February.

The scheduling of a party congress was a likely sign that Raul Castro will be looking to solidify economic changes that he's expected to announce in the coming months.

The announcement was accompanied by other important decisions, including the naming of three new members of the Politburo, the party's executive committee, and the reappointment of 85-year-old Jose Ramon Fernandez to be minister of education.

The announcement also said that a group of prisoners sentenced to death had had their executions postponed while their cases are under appeal.

A Communist Party Congress should have been held in 2002, but was repeatedly postponed without explanation

The three new Politburo members are the current Minister of Communications and Information Technology,Commander Ramiro Valdes, 76; the president of the Cuban Workers Union, Salvador Valdes Mesa, 56; and the ViceMinister of Defense, Gen. Alvaro Lopez Miera, 64.