By Jeff Franks
HAVANA | Thu Apr 21, 2011 3:30pm EDT
(Reuters) - President Raul Castro's admission at a Communist Party
congress that Cuba lacks successors for its aging leaders underlined the
old guard's inability to give up power and its struggle to preserve the
Addressing the congress that ended on Tuesday, Castro gave a litany of
reasons for the failure to find new faces and vowed to look for
candidates from groups that have been neglected before, including
non-members of the party.
The leadership issue is a serious problem for the 79-year-old president,
who wants to ensure the survival of Cuban communism and defy opponents'
predictions it would die with the Castros.
With that in mind, Castro, 79, has embarked on an ambitious reform of
Cuba's stagnant economy, but he says it will take five years to
complete. He formally took over the Cuban presidency from his brother
Fidel Castro, 84, in 2008.
The sight of former leader Fidel Castro being helped to his chair at the
close of the congress reinforced the fact that time is growing short for
the men who have run the country since the 1959 Revolution.
He was also a reminder to current leaders of the dangers of staying in
power too long, said security guard Cecilio Guerra.
"The older people loved him for what he did after the triumph of the
revolution, but we've been in the same situation for so long that many
came to blame him for it," he said.
Cuba's top leaders are mostly in their 70s and 80s, but they have often
given public assurances that younger people were being groomed to take over.
Some observers thought the congress would provide a glimpse of Cuba's
future rulers, but they were disappointed when the status quo prevailed,
embodied by the selection of Raul Castro as the party's first secretary
and his longtime ally Jose Machado Ventura, 80, as number two.
Along with them were a host of familiar faces picked for the party's
powerful 15-member Political Bureau.
"It was what I expected, but it wasn't what I hoped for. Even the
leaders know we need new people with new ideas, and we need them now,"
said flower peddler Isabela, who did not give her full name.
Dropped from both the Politburo and Central Committee was Culture
Minister Abel Prieto, a relative youngster at age 60.
In a speech, Castro said the party had been neglectful of getting new
blood at the top, which he pledged to change.
"Today, we are faced with the consequences of not having a reserve of
well-trained replacements with sufficient expertise and maturity to
undertake the new and complex leadership responsibilities in the party,
state and government," Castro soberly told his fellow communists.
NO STRAYING FROM THE PATH
This was not an easy task, he said. "Although we kept on trying to
promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not
always make the best choice."
The wrong choices included several who strayed from the strict
ideological path hewn by the Castro brothers.
There is speculation Prieto may have been one of these, and the same was
likely the case for former Vice President Carlos Lage and former Foreign
Minister Felipe Perez Roque.
The latter two, both years younger than their ruling contemporaries,
were riding high, often cited as successors to the Castros, when
suddenly they were fired in 2009.
They were forced to issue public apologies for what Fidel Castro
described as succumbing to "the honey of power."
It was never revealed officially why they were dismissed, but reports
surfaced that they had been secretly recorded making remarks about
"dinosaur" colleagues and suggesting that, once in charge, they would
make changes to the Cuban system.
Therein lies a big reason Cuba has a paucity of younger leaders, said
Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director for the Americas Society in
The current rulers forged their beliefs in the fires of revolution and
half a century of resisting ideological foe the United States. They have
viewed with mistrust those who did not pass through the same crucible.
"Fidel, Raul and other 'historicos' carry with them the spirit, vision
and the dogma of the revolution. That sense of ownership over a
movement, a historical moment, doesn't allow for competing
interpretations or the cultivation of new leaders," Sabatini said.
"For this reason, charismatic movements rarely outlive their founder,"
President Castro, looking to prove history wrong, said the party would
broaden its search for new leaders away from the party operatives who
have been their talent pool in the past.
He said the leadership needs more women, blacks and people of mixed race
and that Cubans who are not Communist Party members should be considered
for high government positions.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen)