Cuba's Communist Party must play a more dynamic role as a vehicle of "change and institutionalization" to ensure the success of recent economic reforms on the island, a Cuban-American scholar says.

University of Denver lecturer Arturo Lopez-Levy told Efe in an interview Friday in Havana that he was cautiously optimistic about the Cuban government's steps to allow an expanded role for the private sector but remained skeptical about the "political institutionalization" of those reforms.

He hailed the importance of recent measures such as allowing the free-market sales of homes and automobiles, which he termed a "symbolic step" that will open "doors and opportunities" to more important reforms in areas like the financial sector.

Besides the new real-estate market aimed at easing a severe housing shortage, Cuba's communist government has granted hundreds of thousands of self-employment licenses as part of its plan to drastically reduce the number of people on the state payroll.

The reforms are aimed at curing longstanding economic woes that were further exacerbated by the global slump and a series of hurricanes in 2008 that caused an estimated $10 billion in losses.

Lopez-Levy, however, was critical of the discussion document for a national Cuban Communist Party conference scheduled for January 2012, terming it conservative and tentative.

That gathering, in which officials are to review the party's "working methods," will be held nine months after the 6th Communist Party Congress in April when the organization approved a series of reforms to "update" the socialist model.

But, according to Lopez-Levy, the type of change insinuated by President Raul Castro's reform plan requires a party that not only "wears the mantle of the revolution, of the historical path (the island has taken since 1959), but which is focused on the political task of promoting that reform."

"That involves more significant political changes that do not mean the (end of the one-party system) or anything of the sort, but do imply a more dynamic role for the party as a vehicle of change, reform and institutionalization," the expert said.

Lopez-Levy added, however, that he expects the party conference will lead to changes in the organization's leadership.

The scholar, scheduled to give a lecture Saturday in Havana at the invitation of the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical, said a path to a mixed economy is implicit in Cuba's economic reform plan.

But he said changes to a country's economic model necessarily require political adjustments, as has occurred in Asian countries of a similar ideological bent.

"I think anyone who thinks this type of economic transition can occur without political changes is mistaken. If the Cuban political elite thinks, through any reading it may have done of the reforms in East Asia, that that was economic reform without a political shift, I think they haven't accurately read what happened there," Lopez-Levy said.

In his judgment, the most important changes in Cuba over the past year have been the Communist Party's tolerance toward different types of non-state property, as well as the "accompanying" role afforded to institutions that were once targets of discrimination, such as religious communities.

"This is a very important step ... a very important indicator in a nationalist agenda, that you acknowledge potential partners ... with a distinct ideological vantage point from that of the ruling party," he said.

In that respect, the Jewish scholar said he is "very hopeful" about Pope Benedict XVI's plans to visit to Cuba in the spring of 2012, saying it could help remove stumbling blocks to an improved relationship between the Catholic Church, government and society as a whole.

Asked about Cuban exiles' perception of the "updating" of island's economic model, Lopez-Levy said there are elements within that community in the United States who "are taking note of the changes taking place in Cuba," although in Miami "the negative side that doesn't acknowledge the reforms' potential" prevails.

"But that's solvable with more contact," according to the scholar.

Lopez-Levy recommended "establishing institutional forms (for improved) relations between the island and its diaspora," although he acknowledged that remains a tall order for the time being.