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Familar faces picked as Cuba’s leaders

Raul Castro replaces brother atop ruling party

Fidel Castro showed his support for Raul Castro during the closing ceremony of the Cuban Communist Party congress. Fidel Castro showed his support for Raul Castro during the closing ceremony of the Cuban Communist Party congress. (Reuters News)
By Paul Haven
Associated Press / April 20, 2011

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HAVANA — Cuba’s Communist Party stuck yesterday 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 number two and three 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 national anthem.

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 convention center.

“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 number three 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, 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.’’

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