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.