Cuban Leader Proposes Term Limits In Sign Of New Era

by
Joon
For 52 years the Castro brothers have ruled Cuba. But if President Raúl Castro has his way, he may be out of the job as soon as 2013 and definitely by 2018, when he is 86.

Children in Havana simulated waves on Saturday around a replica of the boat that brought Fidel Castro to Cuba in 1956, part of a parade on the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

HAVANA — For 52 years the Castro brothers have ruled Cuba. But if President Raúl Castro has his way, he may be out of the job as soon as 2013 and definitely by 2018, when he is 86.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Castro’s declarations may intensify the intrigue surrounding his official ascencion 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,” Mr. 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” — Mr. 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.

President Raúl Castro delivered a speech during the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana on Saturday

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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

In many ways, the morning demonstration was typical of most government-organized mass marches here. In the early morning, buses from across the country disgorged workers waving Cuban flags, sporting T-shirts bearing the image of Che Guevara and other icons, carrying placards and banners, and dancing to pounding, patriotic salsa rhythms.

They marched along the Malecón seaside drive, then to Revolution Plaza, where President Castro and other dignitaries beamed at the show of force “to fight whatever imperialist aggression,” as the announcer put it.

The failure of Cuban exiles, trained and assisted by the C.I.A., to topple Fidel Castro’s government still ranks here as an important triumph over the United States, all these years later.

The crowd shouted: “Long live Fidel! Long live Raúl! Long live our Communist Party!” Still, there was some anxiety.

Privately owned taxis in Havana on Tuesday. A Communist Party congress may introduce further privatization measures as the Cuban government grapples with economic problems.

“Really, we do not know what is coming next,” said Armando, a teacher making his way to the parade who, like many others still fearful of speaking their minds here, would give only his first name. “It is worrying, but look around you. Nothing changes here, and that is the problem. We are like a living museum here.”

A few handmade placards seemed to nod to the future.

“Efficiency,” said one, “and victory.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 17, 2011

An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misttated the year that Fidel Castro returned by boat to Cuba from exile. It was 1956, not 1959.

New York Times