Cuban leader proposes term limits in sign of new era

April 18, 2011 - 0:0

HAVANA (New York Times) — President Raúl Castro delivered a speech during the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana on Saturday.

Castro, in a speech on Saturday heralding a battery of changes intended to lift the island out of economic despair and stagnant thinking, proposed that politicians be limited to two five-year terms in an effort to rejuvenate a political system dominated by aging loyalists of the revolution. At the top are himself and Fidel Castro, 84, who permanently gave up presidential power in 2008 and last month announced that he was no longer head of the Communist Party, either.
But President Castro made even more explicit what most Cubans discuss only behind closed doors and the rest of the world has taken for granted: The Castro era is nearing its end.
“We have arrived at the conclusion that it is advisable to limit the fundamental political and state offices to a maximum period of two consecutive periods of five years,” Castro said in a speech opening the Sixth Communist Party Congress, the first such gathering since 1997. He said his generation had failed to prepare a new crop of younger leaders, and called for a “systematic rejuvenation of the whole chain of party and administrative posts.”
Castro’s declarations may intensify the intrigue surrounding his official ascension to the party’s top spot, from the second-highest position, and the question of who will be designated the new No. 2, a possible successor.
His proposal to curtail terms came on a day that swung between embracing the past and grasping for the future.
In the morning, Cuba looked back, with fighter jets, gleaming olive-colored tanks and hundreds of thousands of marchers chanting in fervor over the failed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs 50 years ago, still a celebrated triumph here.
In the afternoon, President Castro looked ahead, swearing allegiance to socialism while bowing to the cold realities of this country’s crippled economy. He called for the elimination of monthly ration books that most Cubans use to buy goods, and for continued expansion of private enterprise. He cajoled his compatriots to shake off inertia and embrace an “updating” of the Cuban model.
“No country or person can spend more than they have,” Castro told 1,000 delegates gathered for the party congress, which is expected to yield broad changes in the Cuban system before it concludes on Tuesday. “Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven, as we have sometimes pretended.”
Speaking for more than two hours — and for more than an hour after he declared, “Everything about the revolution has been said” — Castro gave assurances that socialism would prevail and promised Cubans continued free access to health care and education. But he said government handouts like the ration books were an “unsupportable load on the economy” that discouraged people from working.
He praised the expanded opportunities already extended to entrepreneurs; the government has granted 180,000 licenses for small businesses like coffee vendors, fast-food stands and house rentals, with tens of thousands more expected to be issued in the coming months. Yet he appeared to reject as “contrary to socialism” the loosening of rules on buying and selling homes, a change some analysts had speculated was coming.
The Cuban economy is sinking, racked by the lingering effects of the global recession of 2008, a free fall in the sugar market and, the government argues, the United States’ economic embargo.
Castro’s proposals may be the most significant changes here since businesses were nationalized in 1968, though it is clear that he and his aides are struggling to set a course that will not be seen as a failure of socialism.
Castro already warned that the state could no longer afford to keep four-fifths of the work force on its payrolls, but this month indefinitely delayed the layoffs of 500,000 state workers announced last year.