Fidel Castro gives brother key vote of confidence
Havana: Fidel Castro apologized on Sunday for not making it to a military parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of his victory over CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs, then praised brother Raul`s speech proposing major economic changes and term limits for Cuba`s leaders.
The 84-year-old revolutionary icon said in an opinion piece that the speech opening the Sixth Party Congress after Saturday`s parade made him proud, a key vote of confidence in the direction his brother is taking the country.
"It has been worth the trouble to have lived to see today`s events, and it is worth the trouble to always remember those who died to make them possible," Fidel wrote, adding that he felt "the same feelings of pride" when he heard Raul`s address and saw the faces of the 1,000 Communist Party delegates who attended the speech.
Fidel said he didn`t feel physically up to attending the military parade at Revolution Plaza and begged forgiveness to those who were disappointed by his absence.
"I could have been at the Plaza, perhaps an hour in the blazing heat and sun, but not three," he wrote. "Believe me that I felt pain when I saw that some of you were looking for me on the dais. I thought everyone understood that I can no longer do what I have done so many times before."
Fidel handed power over to his brother after falling gravely ill in 2006, and Raul took over formally two years later. In the last year, Raul, 79, has pushed a limited but significant opening to private enterprise, and said the government must slash the labor force and reduce generous subsidies that are an impediment to hard work.
On Saturday, the Cuban president added a clarion call for political change to his agenda, saying politicians and other leading figures should be limited to two 5-year terms, a remarkable statement on an island run by him and his brother for more than a half century.
Raul acknowledged that errors have left Cuba with no obvious successor and promised to rejuvenate the island`s political class in what time he has left.
The term-limit proposal would mean there could be no repeat of the Castros` political dynasty, but it will have little practical impact on Raul`s future. Having been sworn in in 2008, he would be at least 86 years old at the end of a second five-year term.
Nonetheless, hearing one of the Castro brothers talk about the need for political rejuvenation was stunning, and the talk of the town on Sunday. Many Cubans praised the move, though they also asked why it has taken so long to come about.
"They (Fidel and Raul Castro) realized that the years take their toll, though it is a shame they have only realized it now, 50 years later," said Miraida Solis, a 72-year-old retiree reading a state-run newspaper in a park in Miramar. "They are all very old and many people have been asking,`Where are the young people?`"
Raul`s government is still chock full of graying veterans of their glory days fighting the revolution against Fulgencio Batista from the Sierra Maestra mountains and other battles.
There is Jose Ramon Fernandez, an 87-year-old vice president who commanded defenses during the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack, and Ramiro Valdes, a 78-year-old vice president who was with the brothers when they and their rebel forces landed in Cuba aboard the yacht Granma in 1956.
Then there is Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is 80 and considered by many to be the most important political figure after the Castros, and 78-year old Jose Ramon Balaguer, a former health minister who is a senior member of the Communist Party`s Central Committee.
One major task of the Congress is to select a new Communist Party leadership. Raul Castro presumably will be named to succeed his brother as first secretary, but it is unknown who will be tapped to be No. 2.
Raul`s speech has raised speculation the position will go to a younger leader like Lazaro Exposito, the fast-charging Communist Party chief in Santiago de Cuba, or Marino Murillo, the former Economy Minister who has been promoted to a position that puts him in charge of implementing the economic reforms.
"Raul Castro`s recommendation ... to adopt the principles of term limits represents an historic step toward the creation of institutional and collective forms of leadership," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, an economist who left Cuba in 2001 and is now a lecturer at the University of Denver.
The proposal was made toward the end of a 2 1/2-hour speech to Communist Party luminaries in which the Cuban leader forcefully backed a laundry list of changes to the country`s socialist economic system, including the eventual elimination of ration books and other subsidies, the decentralization of the island nation`s economy and a new reliance on supply and demand in some sectors.
He said the party is also far along in a study of whether to legalize the sale of cars and homes, which have been all but frozen since the revolution.
Delegates to the Congress broke up into committees Sunday to begin debating the changes behind closed doors before the gathering`s scheduled end Tuesday, presumably with another speech by Raul.
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