Fidel Castro officially steps aside in Cuba

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MEXICO CITY -- It became official Tuesday: Fidel Castro was formally removed from the Cuban Communist Party leadership for the first time since its formation nearly 50 years ago.

But despite expectations that the new party leadership would begin to usher in a younger generation, senior stalwarts were appointed to the top posts.

The moves came at the end of an extraordinary congress of the ruling party, in which participants also endorsed a potentially far-reaching package of economic reforms.

Cuban President Raul Castro, 79, was, as anticipated, elected first secretary of the Communist Party, replacing his ailing 84-year-old brother. But in the second slot, Raul Castro named a hard-line communist official long seen as his right-hand man, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is 80.

In fact, by one count, the new 15-member Politburo, only slightly changed from the previous one, has just three members aged under 60; half are in their 70s.

New faces included Mercedes Lopez Acea, 46, head of the Communist Party in Havana, and, significantly, Marino Murillo, 50, a former economy minister recently placed in charge of the broad economic reforms that Raul Castro has made the centerpiece of his government.

The congress endorsed those reforms, which are believed to include issuing more licenses for small businesses, slashing bloated state payrolls and allowing, for the first time, the selling and purchase of private property.

But Raul Castro, in Tuesday's closing speech, warned that it could take five years for the new measures to be enacted, a timeline that some experts say is too protracted to save Cuba's flailing economy.

"We are not under the illusion that ... [the measures] by themselves are the solution to all the problems that exist," Raul Castro said. "Updating the economic model is not a miracle that can be achieved overnight, as some people think."

The speech text was made available by the Havana-based news agency Prensa Latina, and video of Raul Castro delivering it was broadcast by Granma, the official Communist Party news service.

Raul Castro has also proposed limiting party and government officials, including the president, to two five-year terms. That had been a taboo topic in a country where either Fidel or Raul Castro has ruled for half a century. Both have also held the two top Communist Party posts since it was formed in 1965.

As for his brother's decision to leave the party leadership, Raul Castro said Fidel did not need a formal title to validate his position as the historic father of the revolution.

As if to underscore the point, Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance in the congress' closing session, helped to the dais by an aide as delegates gave him a sustained standing ovation.

Fidel Castro recently revealed that when he fell ill in 2006, and nearly died, he not only relinquished the presidency but also his party role. "I knew the state of my health was grave," he wrote this week to explain his decision. "But I was at peace. The revolution would go on."


Associated Press contributed.


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