Raúl Castro proposes age limits on key jobs in the CCP

Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, gestures as he stand with Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, April 16, 2016.
Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, gestures as he stand with Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, April 16, 2016. AP

Cuban ruler Raul Castro proposed age limits for the key leadership posts in the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) and the government during his opening speech Saturday to the party’s 7th Congress.

“We propose establishing 60 as the maximum age for joining the party’s Central Committee … and 70 for leadership jobs in the party,” Castro said, adding that the goal is “the systematic rejuvenation of the entire system of party posts” so that “we are never surprised by developments” and a succession “flows naturally.”

The changes will require reforming the party’s internal rules. Castro added that his proposal should be extended to the entire leadership system of the government, the state and the so-called “mass organizations,” after it’s approved by the legislative National Assembly.

To achieve this, he said, Cuba will hold a constitutional referendum in coming years to “adjust the Magna Carta and reflect all of the changes we will be making.” He immediately declared that there would be no changes in the constitution’s description of Cuba as “irrevocably” socialist or the CCP’s role as “the vanguard of our society.”

Brothers Fidel and Raul Castro have ruled Cuba for 57 years. Now close to turning 85, Raul Castro declared he was proposing the changes “because of obvious reasons, and our own experience.” At one point, he joked that with the age limits the older senior officials in the audience could “relax” and “take care of grandchildren.”

Party members in the audience reacted with a measure of surprise.

The Cuban ruler also dismissed international pressures, especially from the United States, for political reforms and the establishment of a multiparty system. At one point, he put aside the text of his speech for what he described as an anecdote from his talks with U.S. officials on human rights.

“What I really enjoyed was when they told me that Cuba has only one party,” Castro said. He said the “American” — possibly President Barack Obama, whom he has met with several times — told him there are two parties in the United States, Democratic and Republican. Castro’s reply, dismissing the two parties as virtually the same: “That’s like if we had two parties. Fidel leads one, and I lead the other.”

His comments led Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to pass him a note reminding him that his speech was being broadcast live on Cuban television. Castro mentioned the note, thanked Rodriguez and joked, “what we are is alive.”

During the more than two-hour speech, Castro made it clear that there are no political changes on the horizon and that he intends to ensure a smooth succession, but also spent time addressing the different sectors in the audience, especially about the string of economic reforms that he has been trying to put in place.

For the conservatives within the party, he had a clear message on the limits that private economic activity will face: “We reaffirm the socialist principle that state property dominates the fundamental means of production.”

He also tried to reassure foreign investors concerned about Cuba’s dual-currency system, saying “a solution will not take forever.” He also repeated his promise to continue repaying Cuba’s foreign debt and putting the island’s financial affairs in order.

But his speech also showed his differences with brother Fidel, who nationalized virtually every business in Cuba during his “revolutionary offensive” in 1968, in an attempt to uproot capitalism and market forces from the island.

Although he referred indirectly to U.S. government support for small private enterprises as factors for change in Cuba, Castro said the private economic activities he has allowed —cooperatives, self-employment and micro-enterprises — “are not by themselves either anti-socialist nor counterrevolutionary.” He also described the great majority of Cubans in private enterprise as “revolutionaries and patriots.”

Castro also dedicated lengthy parts of his speech to allies in Latin America and other parts of the world, repeating his loyalty to “the original principles” of Cuban foreign policy. He rejected “the attempts to isolate Venezuela as they dialogue with Cuba” as well as U.S. efforts to “undermine Latin American integration” by reforming the Organization of American States. Castro categorically ruled out Cuba’s return to the hemispheric organization, saying that first “a snake will be born from the egg of an eagle” — paraphrasing Cuban independence hero José Martí.

Castro also was unlikely to have pleased Cubans who depend on state salaries or the U.S. government, which at one point he referred to, without naming it, as “the enemy.”

The Cuban ruler made it clear that the economic reforms he has been pushing, largely involving cuts in state subsidies, do not imply “a break with the ideals of equality and justice, and much less a break in the unity of the people and the Party, the generation of instability and uncertainty among the people” — a comment interpreted as a rejection of broader and harsher economic reforms.

But Castro mentioned only briefly that “salaries and pensions continue to be insufficient to satisfy the basic needs of the Cuban family” and did not announce any salary increases. He also blamed the high food prices “on the unscrupulous manipulation of prices by intermediaries” – rather than the deficient production system or cuts in food imports in order to make payments on the foreign debt.

On the improving relations with the United States, Castro reiterated his willingness to establish “a new type” of bilateral relations and his list of demands for Washington: an end to the embargo, the Cuban Adjustment Act and the special parole program for Cuban doctors, and the return of the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo. He accused the U.S. government of trying to “adjust the world to its convenience.”

Castro also told Communist Party members that they will be ruling an increasingly “heterogeneous” society, hence the need for increased debate within the organization. “We need to overcome the false unanimity … We have no fear of disagreements,” he said.

He nevertheless called on his audience to fight “political subversion” and step up “the ideological work with youths, exposed to expanding actions designed to encourage the values of a consumer society, apathy, rootlessness and despair.” He did not say whom he blamed, but gave a hint when he mentioned that “illegal migration is stimulated under the Cuban Adjustment Act” — a clear reference to the United States.

Castro also was clearly unhappy with the resistance that his efforts at economic reforms have met within the ranks of the party and the government. At various points of his speech he scolded bureaucrats for “keeping their arms crossed” and showing “little agility in correcting deficiencies in the implementation” of the reforms.

In what appeared to be a reply to criticisms from party members over the secrecy that surrounds the documents the congress is expected to approve, Castro said a document setting down some of the concepts for Cuba’s economic and social future will not be finished during the current party gathering.

Although 85-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party, called the speech “brilliant,” he did not appear to laugh much when Castro made several joking references to the advanced ages of most members of the Central Committee, whom at one point he called “old men.”

If Castro’s proposal for age limits is approved, Machado’s place on the party’s succession ladder would be even more uncertain.

Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres