Despite his age and calls for generational change, Cuban president Raul Castro, 84, was re-elected for another five years as head of Cuba's Communist Party on Tuesday alongside other veteran of the island’s revolutionary old guard.
His unanimous re-election at the end of a four-day party congress left questions hanging over the pace of a current program of economic reforms and improving relations with the United States.
The congress was held barely a month after a historic visit to Cuba by U.S. President Barack Obama in which he called for greater opening of Cuba’s nascent private sector.
“The Cuban leadership doesn't trust the new opening and seems far more comfortable repeating old, but unconvincing slogans from the Cold War about it's supposed irreconcilable ‘enemy’ to the north,” said Ted Henken, a sociology professor at City University of New York and expert of entrpreneurship in Cuba.
In a surprise appearance on Tuesday, ageing former president Fidel Castro, 89, delivered what some observers described as a valedictory speech, telling party members he would soon be dead and urging them to keep alive his ideas
"I'll be 90 years old soon," Castro said, looking frail and with a raspy voice. "Soon I'll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet … they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need."
Raul Castro will remain the party's first secretary and Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, an 85-year-old hardliner, will keep the post of second secretary for at least part of a second five-year term. Raul Castro is both Cuba’s president and first secretary of the party, though he is due to step down as head of the government in early 2018.
The party congress also elected the powerful 15-member Political Bureau, choosing to ignore calls to include more young reformists.
The lack of change at the head of the party comes despite the thaw in relations beteen the U.S. and Cuba. The two countries restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54 year break, but serious mistrust persists between Havana and Washington.
In Havana, Obama delivered a stunning speech in which he said he came “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War.” The U.S. was no longer interested in imposing regime change on Cuba, he added.
Obama's visit, however carefully choreographed, appeared to take Cuba’s leaders by surprise, prompting a series of public attacks on Obama questioning his goals. Cuban officials re not so ready as Obama to bury the hatchet, recalling ugly episodes including several notorious plots to assasinate the older Castro.
The party congress is timed to commemorate the repelling of the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in Apeil 1961.
In a speech on Friday opening the congress, Raul Castro declared that Washington was still intent on destroying Cuba’s socialist revolution. “We must be alert, today more than ever,” he said. Obama's promotion of the private sector was an effort "to generate agents of change and finish off the revolution by other means ... the goals are the same, only the methods have changed," he added.
The party's 7 th congress, scheduled every five years, took place in sharp contrast to the last gathering in 2011, where free market reform ideas were openly discussed. This years’ Congress was held largely in secret and reform appeared to play a secondary role to defense of socialism and the revolution.
“Obama put them on the defensive,” said Emilio Morales, an economic analyst and founder of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group. “They are back in the trenches, resisting the changes to open the economy and create jobs,” he said. “We are headed into a difficult time. The people want change, but the leadership is scared of what that means for the revolution.”
Cuba’s aging Communist Party leaders face a challenging task of holding the country together as they seek to manage a generational transition in the midst of deeply unfavorable economic circumstances, fueled by the collapse of oil prices which has undermined the financial health of its main ally and benefactor, Venezuela.
As someone who watched closely as the Soviet Union unraveled in the early 1990s, Raul Castro is well aware that authoritarian governments historically tend to come undone when they relax political control.
Maintaining unity under the banner of a single political party system, continues to be the prevailing ideology. “If one day they manage to fragment us, that would be the beginning of the end of the revolution, of socialism and independence in our homeland,” he told the Congress.
The younger Castro noted that the congress would be the last one presided over by the “historic generation” who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution, suggesting a transition will take place before the party’s next gathering in 2021.
Castro stressed change would come, just not as fast as some would like. "(We will) introduce the necessary changes, without hurry and with no improvisation, which would only lead to failure," he said
Castro also proposed age limits and term limits for the party’s top ranks, saying new leaders should be under 60 years old, and leave their posts at 70.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, who teaches Latin American politics at Texas University, compared Castro's handling of the congress to defensive driving. "Castro expressed a desire to broaden the scope of the reforms and speed up their implementation, but he wants to preserve a cushion space for maneuver and reverse," Lopez-Levy told Reuters.
The congress missed an opportunity “to send a new and more encouraging and inclusive message to Cuba's politically alienated youth and emergent entrepreneurs who were hoping for a much more positive signal,” said Henken.
They “now may be more likely to contemplate emigration over trying to build a dignified and prosperous future on an island with such an unclear path ahead.”