Cuban 'old guard' pledges economic reforms

Ageing revolutionaries plot new economic course as Fidel Castro is cheered and brother Raul confirmed as his successor.

    Cuba's Communist Party has chosen many members of the old guard to oversee a new economic course for the country, with Raul Castro, the president, and Jose Machado Ventura, the first vice-president, chosen to lead the party.

    Castro's appointment as first secretary of the ruling party's central committee was expected, but 80-year-old Machado Ventura's appointment as second secretary is likely to disappoint many Cubans hoping for new blood at the top.

    Ramiro Valdes, 78, was named as the party's number three at the party congress in Havana, the capital, on Tuesday.

    Several younger politicians were added to the 15-member leadership group, but in lower positions.

    The appointments also mark the first time since the party's creation 46 years ago that Fidel Castro, Raul's ailing older brother, was not included in the leadership list.

    Last month, Fidel, 84, announced he had resigned as first secretary of the party when he ceded the presidency to Raul several years ago.

    "There was a lot of talk about the need to rejuvenate the leadership of the Communist Party, but so far there haven't been that many new faces," Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's South America editor, said.
    "The reason, Raul Castro says, is that the party simply doesn't have enough people who are well enough prepared to take over at this point."

    Cuba's ageing revolutionaries will preside over the implementation of wide-ranging reforms to the country's struggling Soviet-style economy, which were approved on Monday at the congress, the party's first in 14 years.

    The meeting has approved 300 economic proposals, though details are yet to fully emerge.

    Economic reforms

    Apparently included in the measures was a recommendation to legalise the buying and selling of private property, which has been heavily restricted since the revolution.

    There is home ownership in Cuba, but at present houses can only be swapped, not sold, although under-the-table payments are often involved.

    The reforms are expected to see more than a million government jobs and subsidies slashed over the next couple of years.

    The measures are intended to encourage more private initiative and foreign investment, give more autonomy to state companies and reduce state spending.

    Other measures envision providing seed capital for would-be entrepreneurs and eliminating the island's unique dual-currency system.

    The universal monthly food ration - a trademark feature of the Cuban system - is also intended to be gradually phased out for those who do not need it.

    Raul Castro said on Saturday that the ration given to all Cubans since 1963 had become an "unsupportable burden" for the cash-strapped government trying to rationalise its finances.

    Applause for Fidel

    The party congress does not have the power to enact the changes into law, but the suggestions are expected to be acted upon quickly by the National Assembly over the coming days and weeks.

    Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance at the gathering, receiving thunderous applause from the 1,000 delegates assembled in a vast convention centre in the capital.

    Many could be seen crying as the man who led Cuba's 1959 revolution was helped to his place on stage by a young aide, then stood at attention next to his brother during the playing of Cuba's national anthem.

    While Fidel has appeared in public many times since improved health allowed him to re-emerge from seclusion last summer, he has rarely been seen alongside his brother.

    In a speech at the opening of the congress, Raul warned that a new generation was needed to take over when the old guard is gone.

    He even proposed term limits for officials including the president - a taboo subject during the half-century in which Cuba has been ruled by his brother or himself.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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