HAVANA — Cuba’s Communist Party stuck Tuesday 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 No. 2 and 3 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 onstage 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 No. 3 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 to the council, 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.”
The Congress also approved 300 economic proposals, though details were not released. Apparently included in the measures was a recommendation to legalize the buying and selling of private property, which has been heavily restricted since the revolution.
Also on the table was a proposal to eventually eliminate the monthly ration book, which provides Cubans with a basic basket of heavily subsidized food and other goods. Other measures envision providing seed capital for would-be entrepreneurs and eliminating the island’s unique dual-currency system.
Raul promised that more leadership changes could be made at a Party Conference scheduled for January 2012. Unlike the Congress, which was designed to chart a new way forward for the country, that gathering is expected to focus exclusively on party matters.
He also pledged to continue the program of deep economic reforms announced last year, but said he would do so at a pace the country could handle.
“Modernizing the economic model is not a miracle that can be accomplished overnight like some believe,” Raul told the delegates, adding that he would safeguard the country’s socialist model.
“I assume my last task with the firm conviction and commitment … to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never allow the return of the capitalist regime,” he said.
The Cuban president has championed a limited but significant shift to the free market since taking over from his brother in 2008. Changes announced last year allow Cubans to go into business for themselves in 178 approved enterprises, hire employees and rent out cars and homes.
Raul also has promised to fire half a million unnecessary state workers, and has warned the government no longer can afford the deep subsidies it gives workers in return for wages that average $20 a month. Under Cuba’s Marxist system, more than four in five Cubans work for the government, and the state still controls virtually all means of production.
There was no official reaction from Washington to the leadership changes, but a congressional staffer deeply involved in U.S.-Cuba relations told The Associated Press it was not surprising Raul stuck with revolutionary veterans, since he needs to protect himself from hard-liners who are less enthusiastic about the free-market changes he is making.
He said the appointment of “young bucks” would have caused uncertainty at a time of economic metamorphosis that is already delicate enough.
“It doesn’t negate the reforms,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the changes publicly. But he added that the Cuban leadership’s advanced age does suggest that “reform will be gradual.”
That view was not shared by everyone.
Huber Matos, a former Cuban revolutionary who later resigned and spent 20 years in prison before he was released and moved to Miami, described the Congress as a farce. He said it was absurd to believe the old-timers would be able to right an economy “which they have spent a half-century destroying.”
“Until they change the structure of power nothing will change,” he said.
The inclusion of so many well-worn names in the leadership council came despite an opinion piece by Fidel Castro in which the former leader implied they were only included on a list of candidates as a gesture toward their years of service.
“There were some colleagues who, because of their years and poor health, can no longer do service to the Party, but Raul thought it would be very tough on them to exclude them from the list of candidates,” Fidel wrote in a column that appeared in state-run newspapers and websites Tuesday.
Fidel added that he was all for a term-limit proposal made by Raul at the Congress’ opening on Saturday, despite the fact that he himself ruled the island for more than 47 years.
“I like the idea,” he wrote. “It is a subject on which I have long meditated.”
Associated Press writers Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez, Anne-Marie Garcia and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.