Fidel Castro officially retires as party leader

Raul Castro is named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation 46 years ago.

Property rights on the way as Communist Party leadership overhauled

Fidel Castro, centre, makes a surprise appearance at the Communist Party congress in Havana on Tuesday, where he got a thunderous applause from the crowd. Raul Castro, right, was officially installed in the party's top post. (Javier Galeano/Associated Press)

Raul Castro was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party on Tuesday, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation 46 years ago.

Despite raising hopes  during the gathering that a new generation of leaders was poised to take up important positions, the island's president announced that Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, an 80-year-old longtime confidante, would be his No. 2.

Ramiro Valdes, a 78-year-old vice president, was named to the No. 3 spot. Several younger politicians were added to the 15-member core leadership group, but in lesser positions.

Cuban President Raul Castro addresses the audience Saturday in Havana during the inauguration of the Communist Party's Sixth Congress. ((Enrique De La Osa/Reuters))

In his speech to the delegates, Raul said he would never abandon making necessary economic changes, but that he would only do so at a pace the country could handle.

"Modernizing the economic model is not a miracle that can be accomplished overnight, like some believe," Raul told delegates, adding that he would never allow "the return of a capitalist regime."

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, Havana.

Many could be seen crying as the man who led the 1959 revolution to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista 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. He became animated at times during the proceedings, especially when Raul's name was read out by a party official announcing the members of the party's Central Committee.

That larger group is tasked with picking the core leadership council. For the first time since the party's founding in 1965, Fidel was not included. He had revealed in March that he left the party's top post when he fell gravely ill in 2006, and had never returned despite the fact he continued to be listed as leader.

As their names were called for membership in the Central Committee, each newly elected official stood up, revealing a mix of young and old, including many women and Cubans of African descent.

Three relatively young people were elected to the more important leadership council. They include:

  • Marino Murillo, a 50-year-old former economy minister who's now in charge of sweeping economic reforms.
  • Current Economy Minister Adel Izquierdo, 65.
  • Lazara Mercedes Lopez Acea, 46, the Communist Party chief in Havana.

Changes to permit buying, selling of property

The Congress also approved 300 economic proposals, though details have still not emerged. Apparently included in the measures was a recommendation to legalize the buying and selling of private property, which has been heavily restricted since the revolution.

Also on the table was a proposal to eventually eliminate the monthly ration book, which provides Cubans with a basic basket of heavily subsidized food and other goods. Other measures envision providing seed capital for would-be entrepreneurs and eliminating the island's unique dual-currency system.

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.

Officials called the gathering to set a new course for Cuba's economy, and there had also been talk of the need to rejuvenate an aging political class composed largely of octogenarians in power from the early days of the revolution.

In a speech opening the Congress this weekend, 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 either him or his brother.

Fidel said his brother had shown him his proposals days before sharing them with the Congress, an apparent effort to counter any rumours that the two men disagreed.

"He shared [them] with me several days ago on his own initiative, just as he has with many other subjects without my asking him," Fidel wrote in a column that appeared in state-run newspapers and websites Tuesday.