Younger Castro brother turns 80 in aging regime

Cuban Prez Raul Castro has pledged to legalise the sale of cars and homes.

Havana: Cuban President Raul Castro is set to join elder sibling Fidel in the ranks of octogenarians this week, even as he spearheads efforts to rejuvenate the Communist-run island`s tired economy.

The big day comes Friday, June 3, and it is likely to pass with little fanfare. Raul and Fidel — who turns 85 on Aug 13 — have historically eschewed public celebrations of their birthdays, and the government told a news agency it had no word of any official events to mark the day.

But the milestone is sure to remind supporters and detractors alike that the era of the Castros is nearing its end, biologically if not politically. Raul is already a month older than Fidel was when a near-fatal illness forced him to step down — temporarily, then permanently — in 2006. In April, Fidel gave up his final post as head of the Communist Party.

"Fidel is out at the age of 85 — and he was always much healthier than Raul as a young man — and now Raul is 80," said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba expert and author of "Without Fidel" and "Cuba Confidential."

She gave Raul credit for having the courage to push an agenda of economic change since taking over the presidency, but said he missed a great chance to bring in new leadership at a key Communist Party summit in April when he selected old-guard revolutionaries Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 80, and Ramiro Valdes, 79, as his Nos 2 and 3.

"Their challenge is that they must bring in a younger generation, but instead Raul picked someone even older than him as his chief deputy," she said. "It just shows how unconfident they are. They missed an opportunity."

On the streets of the capital, Havana, reactions to the president`s round-number birthday were mixed.

"I`m not so concerned about his age because he looks like he`s in good health," said Marcelo Delgado, a 72-year-old retiree. "What I am worried about is that it seems to be taking a long time to bring in the economic changes he is talking about, and there isn`t much time left."

Since taking office, Raul has legalised some forms of self-employment, turned over fallow government land to small-time farmers and promised to trim the state`s bloated payroll by 500,000 workers.

He also has pledged to legalise the sale of cars and homes, end restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad and open up credit to would-be entrepreneurs — though those proposals remain part of a vague five-year plan and many are still skeptical.

"Raul is going to turn 80, and the others are even older," said Ernesto, a 26-year-old Havana resident, who asked that he only be identified by his first name for fear he could get into trouble for speaking out about the country`s leaders.

"To make real changes the country needs young people," he said. "Raul talks a lot about giving power to the young, but I ask you, `Where are they?`"

Those with long years of involvement in the island`s affairs say Raul`s birthday is a moment for reflection.

Wayne Smith, who was a young foreign service officer in Havana when President John F Kennedy pulled US diplomats off the island in 1961, said he never thought at the time that the Castros would still be in power all these years later, nor that Cuba would still be America`s enemy.

"Good Lord, no," chuckled Smith, who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "When we left in 1961, I expected to be back shortly. Here we are more than 50 years after the revolution and we still haven`t come to a decent relationship with them."

Smith, who returned to Havana as America`s chief diplomat in 1979 and remains an outspoken opponent of Washington`s 49-year trade embargo, said he was hopeful Raul Castro could make good on his economic overhaul now that he is in command and out from under his charismatic brother`s shadow.

"It will be interesting to see how far they get before he does pass from the scene, because of course he will," Smith said.

That would be fine with many Cuban exiles in Miami, who have grown old themselves waiting for an end to the brothers` reign.

"He`s 80 and he may have another four or five birthday celebrations," said Pepe Hernandez, head of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based exile organization. "But our concern is what happens after that, and in Cuba they don`t seem very concerned about that. I think we should be concerned about what happens when there are no more birthday parties for Raul."

One person who is unmoved by Castro`s birthday is Daniel Torres, a 69-year-old retired veteran in Miami who left Cuba shortly after the 1959 revolution because he says he was threatened with jail time for speaking out against the government.

"After 52 years of tears and suffering, I don`t know what else to say," he said. "It`s a shame he`s made it to 80."

Bureau Report

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