Cuba’s Communist Codgers Keep Control

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Three years ago, just before Raúl Castro was declared his older, ailing brother Fidel’s successor as President of Cuba, the world thought a new generation of leadership would emerge with him. Raúl, then 76, had promised to make Cuba’s sclerotic communist system more open and efficient, and younger, reform-minded apparatchiks finally looked poised to take the reins. But when the election formalities were finished, the six vice presidential posts were filled by men whose average age was 70 – including First Vice President José Ramón Machado, who was 77.

This week, it was time for Raúl, now 79, to officially take Fidel’s place as head of the Cuban Communist Party – Cuba’s only political party – a body as powerful as the Cuban government. And again, the world awaited an infusion of youth, especially with the island’s moribund economy sinking fast – and especially since Raúl last summer announced major economic reforms, including broader private enterprise, that would seem to require more modern thinking than the geriatric generation that led the 1959 revolution has to offer. But on Tuesday, April 19, as a frail Fidel, now 84, was brought onstage to the teary-eyed cheers of 1,000 communist delegates at the party congress in Havana, Raúl once more dashed hopes for new blood. His No. 2 in the party would be his No. 2 in the government, Machado, now 80; and his No. 3 would be another government vice president, Ramiro Valdés, who is 78.

Both Machado and Valdés, diehard communists, are among just a handful of surviving revolutionaries who fought alongside Fidel and Raúl in the 1950s. Machado is one of Raúl’s closest confidants. As a result, veteran Cuba-watchers wonder if clinging to these men means that Raúl aims to keep reform expectations tamped down – in his speech to the congress on Tuesday, he emphasized that his job as party first secretary is to “defend, preserve and continue socialism, and to never allow the return of capitalism” – or that he intends to use these comrades to help him shake things up now that Fidel has retired from both government and party (a fact that seemed to be underscored by his appearing at the congress in a track suit instead of his military fatigues). As Raúl also insisted Tuesday, “It’s time to end [Cuba’s] mentality of inertia.”

The answer, per usual with Raúl, is probably a mix of both. Though less charismatic than Fidel, he’s far more pragmatic; and since taking over for Fidel, first as provisional president in 2006 when Fidel was sidelined by intestinal surgery, and then officially in 2008, he’s kept Cubanologists guessing whether he’s a reformer or a reactionary. Last year, for example, Raúl took the bold step of releasing the 75 dissidents Fidel had jailed during a massive 2003 crackdown; but he’s done little to let the limited debate he’s encouraged on the economy flower into broader political freedoms.

Still, the party congress, which began on Saturday and ended Tuesday to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, did ratify Raúl-approved reforms that could alter Cuba’s system. Last summer, Raúl announced that 500,000 state employees would have to be laid off this year – a half million more in the next few years – and be absorbed by the island’s fledgling private sector. Toward that end, the congress also sanctioned for the first time since 1959 the private buying and selling of property like homes and cars as well as taking out private bank loans. The latter will be particularly important if Cubans are to finance all the small businesses whose earnings and taxes Raúl is counting on to pull the island out of its financial tailspin.

And despite Raúl’s obvious wish to surround himself with revolutionary veterans who can both catalyze his reforms and control their effects, the fact is he can’t break Cuba’s communist inertia without that infusion of youthful blood the world keeps waiting for. Since 2008, younger up-and-comers like then economy czar Carlos Lage, who at the time was a relatively teen-aged 56, have been cast out. Cuba reform advocates hope that the new economy czar, Marino Murillo, 50, is enough of both reformer and Raulista to be able to take the island into capitalist territory without provoking a backlash from the old guard.

When the party’s new batch of officials was presented on Tuesday, according to reports, a number of younger people were among them. And they can perhaps take heart in one of the other reforms Raúl announced at the congress: term limits for Cuban office holders. Whether or not that new rule applies to the old guard is, like Raúl himself, a bit of a mystery.