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Cuba lays foundation for a new leader
Randal C. Archibold, The New York Times
HAVANA — Cuba on Tuesday made the most significant change to its leadership since the 1959 revolution, naming someone other than the Castro brothers for the first time to fill the second-highest position in the Communist Party and possibly setting the stage for their eventual successor.
The appointment, at the party’s first congress in 14 years, coincided with a blizzard of changes opening the way for more private enterprise. Taken together, the actions were meant to pull the revolution, at 53, out of a midlife crisis that has led to a sinking economy and, even in the estimation of President Raúl Castro, stagnant thinking.
But Mr. Castro, for all his talk about the need to rejuvenate the system, in the end stuck with the old guard, many of them fellow military officers, for now.
“The rebel army is the soul of the revolution,” he said, quoting Fidel Castro, his brother.
President Castro, 79, had hinted that he might select a young up-and-comer to guide a post-Castro era. Instead, he tapped a party stalwart, José Ramón Machado, 80, who fought at his side in the mountains during the rebellion.
Mr. Castro did, however, name several people younger than 70 to the central committee and three to the 15-member Politburo, including the architect of the current round of economic changes, possibly grooming them for bigger roles.
Mr. Castro acknowledged that his generation had lagged in preparing young leaders, saying Cuba lacked “a reserve of substitutes with the sufficient maturity and experience to take over the principal duties of the country.”
Some analysts disputed that, saying Mr. Castro’s moves merely solidified his power against any stirrings from those who are young and perhaps too progressive.
“What it means is any generational change and the implementation of reforms will be guided by the ‘historicos’ — or perhaps better put, constrained by the history of the Cuban revolution and the memories and goals of its founders,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba scholar who edits Americas Quarterly.
Fidel Castro, 84, who had been absent from the proceedings and a parade over the weekend, looked on, dressed in a dark warm-up suit over a checkered shirt and helped at times by aides when he stood to clap, which he did especially vigorously for his brother.
Given Mr. Machado’s age, some people doubted that he would succeed President Castro. Instead, as a trusted lieutenant, he may play a pivotal role in helping to choose who that may ultimately be and under what structure he may govern.
Aside from being a fellow combatant during the revolution, Mr. Machado may have been an attractive choice to Mr. Castro for his role overseeing the inner workings of the party, in charge of an office approving promotions and developing ties with party leaders across the island, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver and former political analyst in the Cuban Interior Ministry.
“Machado will be a key factor in choosing not only the successor, but also the structure of separation of powers destined to replace, within the party and between party and government, the current model of ‘Castro in command,’ ” Mr. Lopez-Levy said.
“Down the road, the old leaders just gained some time,” he said. “Will they use it wisely? The congress gave some hope to the party members and the population about a serious economic reform. Now the old generation still in power would have to respond to these expectations.”
President Castro, as expected, took the top position of the party and read off a list of leadership changes that made official his brother’s departure from the ranks of the party he founded. Fidel Castro, warmly cheered by party members, had announced last month that he was no longer first secretary of the party, but his name still appeared on lists.
President Castro, aside from offering the usual lashing words toward the United States, portrayed the changes as an upgrade of Cuban socialism rather than a reboot that could open the way to full-bore capitalism.
“I assume my post to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never permit the return of capitalism,” Mr. Castro said in a speech closing the congress.
United States Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, who left Cuba in the early 1960s as a girl, responded in kind, demonstrating the passions the leadership of Cuba can generate among many exiles.
“The so called ‘congress’ of the Communist Party is anything but a congress, as the agenda and all the decisions have been previously agreed to by the ruling and aging dictators,” she said in a statement. “The Cuban people deserve much better than these old and tired despots who refuse to accept that they have failed miserably.”
Although the congress approved about 300 modifications to the law, which could include the buying and selling of homes, a practice banned since the revolution, and the eventual elimination or reduction of state subsidies like ration books for basic necessities, details were not disclosed. The National Assembly will receive the results, and it is widely expected that it will ratify them.
On the streets, any reaction was muted by either a lack of understanding of how the changes would be carried out or the fear of speaking openly to a stranger in a place that by and large does not tolerate dissent.
The document that party delegates ostensibly debated for the past four days was never publicly released, and Cubans caught a glimpse of it and whatever had been decided only on the evening news when summaries of the proceedings were broadcast.
If a casual look into living rooms was any indication, it appears a good many people found other programs to watch.
“If all of this improves the conditions here, then of course we are for it,” said Juana Ortiz, 44. “Who can argue with the fact something needs to be done and the young need to have a role?”