Havana - Cubans will be able to buy and sell homes and cars for the first time in 50 years under economic reforms approved Tuesday at a landmark Communist Party congress seeking to secure the island's socialist future.
President Raul Castro took over from his elder brother Fidel as head of the ruling Communist Party as expected during the rare four-day congress, which fell short of promises to rejuvenate a ruling old guard.
"The first secretary's primary mission and purpose is to defend, preserve and continue to develop socialism, and to never allow the return of capitalism," Raul Castro, who will be 80 in June, said in his closing speech.
The congress named political veteran Jose Ramon Machado, 80, as second secretary and only three new members of the leadership, including Marino Murillo, 50, who has led Raul Castro's reform program.
The president surprised many by proposing at the weekend that top political positions should be limited to two five-year terms.
Ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, 84, drew a roar of applause in a surprise appearance at the end of the sixth congress since the creation of the Communist Party in 1965.
The 1 000 delegates gathered in Havana approved some 300 reforms aimed at keeping the centrally planned economy from collapse, but far from embracing a market-led economy.
"It's time to end the mentality of inertia," said Raul Castro.
The reforms include the opening up of the private sector, trimming a million state jobs in the coming years and reducing state spending. Many have already started to be adopted.
Other measures expected to shake up the lives of ordinary Cubans include introducing the right to buy or sell a car or apartment or receive a bank loan.
No details were given on how sales would operate.
The changes were backed by Fidel Castro - the icon of the 1959 revolution who ruled the country for almost five decades - who has said he wishes to continue to play a major role "as a soldier of ideas," shaping current thought and policy as a columnist and commentator.
"The new generation is called to rectify and change without hesitation all that must be rectified and changed," he wrote in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
Fidel said in an article published Tuesday that he had handed over the functions of the party head to Raul when he ceded power to his brother due to his declining health in 2006, though he had retained the first secretary title.
"Raul knew that I would not accept a formal role in the party today," Fidel wrote on the Cubadebate.cu portal.
Castro said he supported the stepping aside of some of the older luminaries in the party, adding that "the most important thing was that I did not appear on that list.
"I have received too many honors. I never thought I would live so long," he wrote.
Cubans have reacted to the reforms with cautious optimism, hoping that the government follows through with its pledges without harming those who depend on the public sector for employment and other basic needs.
Mikaela, the 28-year-old owner of a small beauty salon in the old city of Havana, hoped they would "give us the means to work and earn a living.
"That is all we need," she told AFP.
The last party congress in the Americas' only communist regime was held in October 1997. The meeting is supposed to be held every five years but had been postponed repeatedly without public explanation.