Cuba's Castro keeps top job but leadership changes to come

Fidel Castro Speaks from What Could Be His Last Congress
Fidel Castro Speaks from What Could Be His Last Congress

HAVANA, April 19 (Reuters) - President Raul Castro will serve a second term as head of Cuba's Communist Party as the island's aging leaders see out a final period in power, amid economic reform and detente with the United States.

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The Communist Party, which announced the result of internal elections on Tuesday, wants to avoid any chaotic shake-up within its ranks as it wrestles with economic change and a transition from the generation of leaders who fought in the 1959 revolution.

Speaking at the closure of a four-day party congress, Castro, 84, said it would be the last one headed by the current party leaders, signaling that they 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 his elder brother, former president and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, 89, a roaring ovation.

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In an admission of his mortality the elder Castro, alluding to death, told the congress, "Soon I will be 90 years old  Soon I will be like everyone before me."

Raul Castro had proposed age limits and term limits for top officials as the party gathered for the start of the congress over the weekend, raising expectations septuagenarian and octogenarian veterans would begin to step aside.

The congress backed steps toward more foreign investment and a growing private sector of small businesses, but 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 on Tuesday.

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 fought alongside Fidel and Ernesto "Che" Guevara in their rebellion against a U.S.-backed government in the 1950s. He is seen as a ideological hard-liner who has sought to slow a move to market economics.

Castro is seen as 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.


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.

Castro has called for sweeping changes in the management of Cuba's economy and wants top leaders to retire at 70. But he said the next five years would be for transition and such rules would not be fully applied until then.

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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.

The congress is not due to reconvene until 2021. Castro steps down as Cuba's president in 2018 and it is not yet clear whether he will stay on as party leader for the full five-year term.

Younger faces in senior roles 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.

In a sign of the secrecy with which the congress has been conducted, the closing speeches and results of the country's most important political event were not broadcast live on state television, which instead showed a soap-opera.