At Party Congress, Fidel Castro Speaks Of His Mortality

Apr 20, 2016
Originally published on April 20, 2016 10:25 am

Cuba's leadership won't change anytime soon, nor will its political or economic plans for the future. That's the take-away from the four-day congress of the Cuban Communist Party that wrapped up late Tuesday. And apparently to emphasize that the old guard remains firmly in control, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance.

Seated and wearing a bright blue athletic jacket, Castro spoke before more than 1,000 Communist Party delegates. "Soon I will be 90 years old," he said, in what will in all likelihood be his last address to Cuba's once-every-five-year gathering of the party faithful.

"Soon I'll be like all the others; everyone's turn must come," Castro said in a crackling yet firm voice. But he added that what he called the legacy of Cuban communism, hard work and dignity, will live on.

Spectators, who filled the auditorium, frequently interrupted Castro's speech with enthusiastic applause.

Castro's surprise visit to the congress, coupled with his younger brother Raúl's re-election as party leader, makes it clear that Cuba's elder revolutionaries remain in charge. Raúl Castro is 84. Eighty-five-year-old José Ramón Machado remains second-in-command.

Expectations had risen lately that economic reforms allowing for private businesses might be expanded and that a younger generation could take over key leadership positions.

But Ted Henken, an expert on Cuba at New York's Baruch College, says those hopes have been squashed by what he calls the Obama effect. He says the Cuban leadership got spooked after President Obama was widely welcomed during his historic visit to the island last month.

"And instead of opening in response to Obama's opening, they seem to be doubling down on the kind of top-down control because they are fearful that this new dynamic with Obama is a Trojan horse," says Henken.

Raúl Castro said as much during his opening remarks. He referred to the U.S. as the enemy, saying its methods may have changed but its goal is still to rid Cuba of communism. Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba's foreign minister, turned the rhetoric up even higher, accusing Obama of launching an ideological attack on Cuba.

An Obama administration official says he is not surprised by the harsh tone and that normalization of relations between the two countries will take time.

Peter Kornbluh, co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, agrees. But he says Cuba's leadership will continue down the road toward opening up its economy.

"Cuba has no choice — and Raúl Castro's leadership has been focused on this — but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically," he said.

But the lack of concrete reforms to come out of the congress is troubling for U.S. businesses wanting to get a foothold in Cuba, and for Cuba's nascent private sector, which now makes up a quarter of the workforce. The sector has hit its limit for growth and is increasingly frustrated and more vocal about total state control of the economy.

Aware of that discontent, Raúl Castro promised reforms are coming — he just didn't say what they were or when they would happen.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Cuba, the Communist Party congress wrapped up a four-day meeting yesterday. And here are a couple takeaways. Cuba's leadership will not change anytime soon, nor will the government's political or economic plans for the future. And there was a rare appearance by Fidel Castro, apparently to emphasize that the old guard remains firmly in control. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Seated and wearing a bright blue athletic jacket, Fidel Castro spoke before more than 1,000 Communist Party delegates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FIDEL CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: "Soon, I'll be 90 years old," said Castro, in what will in all likelihood be his last address to Cuba's once-every-five-year gathering of the party faithful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Soon, I'll be like all the others. Everyone's turn must come," said Castro.

But, he added, the legacy of Cuban communism - hard work and dignity - will live on. Castro's surprise visit to the congress, coupled with his younger brother Raul's re-election as party leader, makes it clear that Cuba's elder revolutionaries remain in charge.

Eight-five-year-old Jose Ramon Machado remains second in command. Expectations had risen lately that economic reforms allowing for private businesses might be expanded, and that a younger generation could take over key leadership positions. But Ted Henken, an expert on Cuba at New York's Baruch College, says those hopes have been squashed by what he calls the Obama effect. He says the Cuban leadership got spooked after President Obama was widely welcomed during his historic visit to the island last month.

TED HENKEN: And instead of opening in response to Obama's opening, they seem to be doubling down on the kind of top-down control because they're fearful that this new dynamic with Obama is a Trojan horse.

KAHN: Raul Castro said as much during his opening remarks to the congress. He referred to the U.S. as the enemy, saying its methods may have changed, but its goal is still to rid Cuba of communism. Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba's foreign minister, turned the rhetoric up even higher, accusing Obama of launching an ideological attack on Cuba.

An Obama official says the administration is not surprised by that harsh tone, and that normalization of relations between the two countries will take time. Peter Kornbluh, a historian in Cuban-American relations, agrees. He says Cuba's leadership will continue down the road toward opening up its economy.

PETER KORNBLUH: Cuba has no choice. And Raul Castro's leadership has been focused on this - but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically.

KAHN: But the lack of concrete reforms to come out of the four-day congress is troubling for U.S. businesses wanting to get a foothold in Cuba and for the country's nascent private sector, which now makes up a quarter of the workforce. The sector has hit its limits for growth and is increasingly frustrated and more vocal about total state control of the economy. Aware of that discontent, Raul Castro promised reforms are coming - he just didn't say what they were or when they would happen. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.