Thursday, April 21, 2016

Elderly Castro holds onto Cuba's top job in changing times

Elderly Castro holds onto Cuba's top job in changing times

President Raul Castro will serve up to five more years as head of Cuba's
Communist Party as he and other aging revolutionaries keep their grip on
power at a time of economic reform and detente with the United States.

The Communist Party announced the result of internal elections on
Tuesday. Wrestling with economic change and transition from the
generation that toppled a U.S.-backed government in 1959, the party
wants to avoid any chaotic shake-up within its leadership ranks.

Speaking at the closure of a four-day party congress, Castro, 84,
signaled he and his fellow octogenarian No. 2 would step aside sometime
before the next such meeting in five years.

"This seventh congress will be the last one led by the historic
generation," Castro said, at the closing ceremony where delegates gave
his older brother, former president and revolutionary leader Fidel
Castro, 89, a roaring ovation.

In an admission of mortality, the elder Castro startled Cubans used to
his towering presence over the island's politics since he was a young man.

"Soon I will be 90 years old," he said. "Soon I will be like all the
rest. Our turn comes to all of us," the now frail former leader said in
his most extensive public appearance in years.

Raul Castro had proposed an age limit of 70 for top officials as the
party gathered for the start of the congress over the weekend, raising
expectations veterans would begin to step aside. But he said the next
five years would be for transition and such rules would not be fully
applied until then.

The congress is not due to reconvene until 2021. Castro steps down as
Cuba's president in 2018 and when he does he could either remain in the
more powerful role as head of the party or retire from that post as well.

The congress backed steps toward more foreign investment and a growing
private sector of small businesses, but few details of new measures to
free up the economy were revealed and Castro made clear that such
changes would not be rushed.

"(We will) introduce the necessary changes, without hurry and with no
improvisation, which would only lead to failure," he said.

At the end of the congress, the first since 2011, the Communist Party
said Castro had been re-elected as first secretary, with Jose Ramon
Machado Ventura, 85, re-elected as second secretary.

Machado Ventura, a doctor, fought alongside Fidel and Ernesto "Che"
Guevara in their 1950s rebellion. He is seen as a ideological hard-liner
who has sought to slow a move to market economics, leading a campaign to
reintroduce price controls after an inflation spike at the end of last year.

The two men are close, but Castro is seen as more of a pragmatist who
built Cuba's army and brought efficient management to some of the
military's powerful companies during long years in the shadow of his
brother Fidel, who ruled the country until 2008.


The younger Castro ordered market reforms to the economy and oversaw the
thaw with the United States that led Barack Obama to become the first
U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

Since that historic visit last month, the brothers have hardened
anti-U.S. rhetoric and raised political defenses out of a stated concern
Washington plans to topple them.

Under Castro, Internet usage has slowly grown in one of the world's
least connected countries, and Cubans are more open in expressing
political views. But the congress made no political concessions,
reaffirming the importance of a one-party state.

After encouraging self-employment to lower the state's responsibilities
at the last congress, about half a million Cubans now work for
themselves or for small private businesses, forming a growing middle class.

Only a fifth of planned reforms have been fully implemented and there is
growing irritation more has not been done, with thousands of young
Cubans taking advantage of new travel freedoms to leave for good.

While top posts were unchanged, the party brought in five mostly younger
faces to the powerful political bureau. In an attempt to diversify the
mostly white, male bureau, the new members included three women. Two
were of mixed Afro-Cuban descent.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, who teaches Latin American politics at Texas
University, likened Castro's moves to defensive driving as he seeks to
maintain Cuba's single-party political system.

"Castro expressed a desire to broaden the scope of the reforms and speed
up their implementation, but he wants to preserve a cushion space for
maneuver and reverse," Lopez-Levy said.

Younger faces include Miguel Diaz-Canel, 55, who as first vice president
of the country is widely seen as Raul Castro's successor. He was
re-elected to a senior position in the party but was not promoted.

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Bill Trott and Tom Brown)

Source: Elderly Castro holds onto Cuba's top job in changing times |
Reuters -

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