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Fidel Castro era ends, but his peers still rule

Fidel Castro, left of his brother, Raul Castro, makes a surprise appearance at Congress in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Fidel Castro, left of his brother, Raul Castro, makes a surprise appearance at Congress in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday. (Associated Press)

MIAMI – An almost ghost-like Fidel Castro attended the closing of a Communist Party conclave Tuesday that marked the formal end of his era and endorsed key economic reforms – but dashed hopes for a younger leadership amid a sea of white hair.

The 84-year-old Castro smiled, clapped and nodded but remained silent as his brother Raul replaced him as the party’s first secretary and warned that while the reforms are critically needed, they will bring hardships.

While the party’s first Congress in 14 years renovated about half the membership of its ruling Politburo and the broader Central Committee, there was no sign of the generational change in leadership that many Cubans had hoped for.

Replacing the 79-year-old Raul as second secretary was Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 80, a long-time party functionary. Named as the party’s No. 3 was Ramiro Valdes, a reputed hardliner who is 79.

The new leadership appeared no more likely than the old one to successfully manage tough reforms needed to resuscitate a stagnant economy by allowing more private enterprise and giving more autonomy to state enterprises, among other changes.

But Raul’s promotion clearly represented the official end of the Fidel Era. The leader of the 1959 revolution surrendered the presidency of the government in 2008 because of ill health, and after Tuesday holds only honorary titles such as comandante.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of delegates to the VI Communist Party Congress as Fidel entered the Havana hall and acknowledged the long applause from a party that he led since its foundation in 1965.

Wearing a blue track suit, he needed help walking and stood but did not join in as the 1,000 delegates closed the Congress by singing the party’s anthem. The Castro brothers then joined hands and raised their arms in a salute to the audience as they walked out.

They left behind a Politburo and Central Committee whose new membership left no doubt that the revolution’s old guard remains in control of the party.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R. Fla., said she was not impressed. “The current tyrant Raul Castro … takes over as chief of the Communist Party from the prior tyrant Fidel Castro and they announce this as ‘changes.’ Whom are they kidding? They have been in power for 52 repressive years.”

The Politburo was cut from 24 to 15 members – average age 68 – including 12 incumbents. The new members include two men in their early 50s who play key roles in the reforms: former Economic Minister Mariano Murillo, promoted last month as the party’s economic “tsar,” and his replacement in the government, Adel Izquierdo Rodriguez.