Cuban communists opt for old guard to lead reforms

HAVANA Tue Apr 19, 2011 11:49pm BST

1 of 4. Cuba's President Raul Castro addresses the audience during the closing ceremony of Cuban communist congress in Havana April 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Enrique De La Osa

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's Communist Party selected President Raul Castro and a hardline ally as its top chiefs on Tuesday, entrusting old guard leaders to steer wide-ranging reforms of the Caribbean island's tattered economy.

As expected, Raul Castro, 79, was chosen at a four-day party congress to replace his older brother Fidel Castro as first secretary of the ruling party's Central Committee.

Fidel Castro, now 84, quit all his leadership posts when he fell ill in 2006. He attended the final day of the congress.

But the appointment of First Vice President Jose Machado Ventura, 80, as second secretary signalled that Cuba's ageing leadership was not yet ready for new blood at the top of one of the world's last communist states. He is viewed as a hardline communist ideologue.

Several other party leaders retained are in their 70s, veterans of the Cuban revolution and the one-party communist system it subsequently installed.

Raul Castro has described Cuba's Soviet-style economy, hamstrung by heavy state bureaucracy and battered by hurricanes and the global financial crisis in recent years, as teetering on the abyss and badly in need of reform. But he reiterated his intent was to save Cuba's socialist system, not abandon it.

"I assume my last job with the firm conviction and commitment ... to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never permit the return of the capitalist regime," he said to applause from 1,000 congress delegates.

The two ageing communists, Castro and Machado Ventura, will preside over the island's biggest economic changes in years, which were approved on Monday at the party's first congress since 1997.

The package of more than 300 reforms aims to reduce spending by the debt-ridden government, cut subsidies, give more autonomy to state enterprises and encourage more foreign investment in a general overhaul of the system. But central planning will remain.

In two of the bigger issues for average Cubans, the food ration all have received since 1963 will be phased out for those who do not need it and the buying and selling of homes will be permitted for the first time in many years, although likely with restrictions.

Some changes, including the slashing of more than a million government jobs, allowing more self-employment and leasing state land to private farmers, are already under way.

FEW NEW FACES IN POLITBURO

Raul Castro and Machado Ventura fought in Cuba's revolution and head the ageing revolutionaries who have run the government and resisted U.S. pressure for political change since they helped topple U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Age is a concern because President Castro said they had not groomed young leaders to replace them.

Raul Castro, who served as defence minister for 49 years under his older brother before formally replacing him as president in 2008, said on Saturday the party was considering limiting future leaders, including himself, to two five-year terms. The issue would be taken up at a party conference next January 28, he said.

Machado Ventura, a medical doctor who joined the Castro brothers early in their revolutionary campaign from the Sierra Maestra mountains, is first in line to succeed Raul Castro.

Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society in New York, said the congress reminded him of salsa dancing where participants take "one step back, one step forward" and despite the back and forth "end up only slightly forward."

"There are signs of progression," he said, but "clearly, the appointment of Machado indicates the 'historicos' will continue to dominate the process."

Raul Castro said 15 people, including him and Machado Ventura, had been named to the powerful Political Bureau of the Central Committee.

Only three of them were new members -- reforms czar Marino Murillo, Havana Communist Party head Mercedes Lopez Acea and Economy Minister Adel Izquierdo Rodriguez.

MILITARY "SOUL OF REVOLUTION"

The Politburo also includes five generals, not counting Raul Castro, and former general Izquierdo, reflecting the military's growing role in the Cuban government and prompting an explanation from Castro.

"It is natural that it's that way," Castro said, citing an old quote from Fidel Castro that the "rebel army was the soul of the revolution."

He also pointed out there were 48 women on the 115-member Central Committee and 36 blacks and mixed-race people, both increases over previous numbers of these categories.

A son-in-law of Raul Castro, Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, an executive in Cuba's military business sector, was among those appointed to the Central Committee.

Fidel Castro, wearing a blue gym suit, had to be helped to his seat at the front of the congress and did not address the delegates, who applauded him warmly.

He has said he resigned from his party leader post, without publicly disclosing it, when he fell seriously ill in 2006. He wrote in state press on Tuesday he did not want to return.

"I think I have received too many honours. I never thought I would live so many years."

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman)

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