Raul Castro named 1st secretary of Communist Party
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA -- Cuba's Communist Party stuck Tuesday with a slate of
silver-haired icons of the revolution to spearhead a last-ditch effort
to save the island's sputtering economy - surprising those who took to
heart declarations by Raul and Fidel Castro that it was time to give way
to a new generation of leaders.
Delegates to a key Party Congress picked 79-year-old Raul Castro to
replace his ailing brother at the helm, while weathered veterans moved
up to the No. 2 and 3 positions. Three somewhat younger politicians were
named to lesser roles in the leadership council, but it remained
dominated by men who came of age before television, let alone the Internet.
Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance, to thunderous applause from
delegates, many of whom could be seen crying as he was helped to his
place on stage by a young aide, then stood at attention during Cuba's
Wearing a blue track suit over a checked shirt, the 84-year-old
revolutionary leader looked unsteady on his feet as he clutched the
aide's arm, and at times slumped in his chair. He became more animated
as the proceedings continued, especially when Raul's name was read out
by an official announcing members of the party's Central Committee.
Fidel was left off the leadership slate for the first time.
But Raul said his brother needed no formal title to continue being the
country's guiding light. "Fidel is Fidel," he said.
In a speech closing out the Congress, Raul acknowledged the lack of
fresh faces, saying the country had failed to develop young leaders
because of errors committed in the past, including by him and his brother.
"We have kept various veterans of the historic generation, and that is
logical due to the consequences of the mistakes that have been made in
this area," Raul told 1,000 delegates gathered in a sprawling Havana
"These have robbed us of a back bench of mature substitutes with enough
experience to take on the country's top positions."
Named party second secretary was Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, an
80-year-old stalwart who set up field hospitals for the Castros when
they were young rebels fighting to topple Fulgencio Batista in the
1950s. The No. 3 spot went to Ramiro Valdes, a 78-year-old vice
president who was with the brothers when they launched the revolution
aboard the Granma yacht in 1956.
Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba expert and author of "Without Fidel"
and "Cuba Confidential," said the much-anticipated leadership
announcement fell flat, with Raul Castro, Machado Ventura and Valdes
continuing to run things.
"What part of this is a shake-up? These are the three principal
'historicos' left in the country." she said. "We're not seeing new blood
- this is the oldest blood Cuba has."
A larger and less influential body, the Central Committee, was chock
full of young women and Afro-Cubans, as well as grizzled armed forces
generals and members of the old guard.
Three relatively young people were elected to the leadership council,
including Marino Murillo, a 50-year-old former economy minister who was
recently put in charge of implementing sweeping economic reforms. The
current economy minister, 65-year-old Adel Izquierdo, was also named to
the council, as was Lazara Mercedes Lopez Acea, 46, the Communist Party
chief in Havana who became the 15-member council's only woman.
Cubans reacted with a mix of support and resignation.
"It's logical," said Reina Rosa, a 43-year-old Havana resident. Raul
"had to put a man there (as second secretary) that he trusts completely
and there's none of those among the young people."
"It's the same thing with the same people," added Maria Rubio. "These
old guys don't want to let go of power."
The Congress also approved 300 economic proposals, though details were
not released. Apparently included in the measures was a recommendation
to legalize the buying and selling of private property, which has been
heavily restricted since the revolution.
Also on the table was a proposal to eventually eliminate the monthly
ration book, which provides Cubans with a basic basket of heavily
subsidized food and other goods. Other measures envision providing seed
capital for would-be entrepreneurs and eliminating the island's unique
Raul promised that more leadership changes could be made at a Party
Conference scheduled for January 2012. Unlike the Congress, which was
designed to chart a new way forward for the country, that gathering is
expected to focus exclusively on party matters.
He also pledged to continue the program of deep economic reforms
announced last year, but said he would do so at a pace the country could
"Modernizing the economic model is not a miracle that can be
accomplished overnight like some believe," Raul told the delegates,
adding that he would safeguard the country's socialist model.
"I assume my last task with the firm conviction and commitment ... to
defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never allow the
return of the capitalist regime," he said.
The Cuban president has championed a limited but significant shift to
the free market since taking over from his brother in 2008. Changes
announced last year allow Cubans to go into business for themselves in
178 approved enterprises, hire employees and rent out cars and homes.
Raul has also promised to fire half a million unnecessary state workers,
and has warned the government can no longer afford the deep subsidies it
gives workers in return for wages that average $20 a month. Under Cuba's
Marxist system, more than four in five Cubans work for the government,
and the state still controls virtually all means of production.
There was no official reaction from Washington to the leadership
changes, but a congressional staffer deeply involved in U.S.-Cuba
relations told The Associated Press it was not surprising Raul stuck
with revolutionary veterans, since he needs to protect himself from
hard-liners who are less enthusiastic about the free-market changes he
He said the appointment of "young bucks" would have caused uncertainty
at a time of economic metamorphosis that is already delicate enough.
"It doesn't negate the reforms," said the staffer, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the
changes publicly. But he added that the Cuban leadership's advanced age
does suggest that "reform will be gradual."
That view was not shared by everyone.
Huber Matos, a former Cuban revolutionary who later resigned and spent
20 years in prison before he was released and moved to Miami, described
the Congress as a farce. He said it was absurd to believe the old-timers
would be able to right an economy "which they have spent a half century
"Until they change the structure of power nothing will change," he said.
The inclusion of so many well-worn names in the leadership council came
despite an opinion piece by Fidel Castro in which the former leader
implied they were only included on a list of candidates as a gesture
toward their years of service.
"There were some colleagues who, because of their years and poor health,
can no longer do service to the Party, but Raul thought it would be very
tough on them to exclude them from the list of candidates," Fidel wrote
in a column that appeared in state-run newspapers and websites Tuesday.
Fidel added that he was all for a term-limit proposal made by Raul at
the Congress's opening on Saturday, despite the fact that he himself
ruled the island for more than 47 years.
"I like the idea," he wrote. "It is a subject on which I have long
Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Andrea
Rodriguez, Anne-Marie Garcia and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to
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