Cuba old guard to flank Raul Castro until 2018

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Havana (AFP)

Fidel Castro appeared alongside brother Raul at a Communist party congress that ended Tuesday without sweeping leadership changes, leaving to another day the question of who will run Cuba when the old guard bows out.

Flanked by his younger sibling, the 89-year-old retired revolutionary was given a rock star welcome at the close of a congress that left Cuba's elderly Politburo at the helm for another five years -- despite Raul Castro's pledge to stand down in 2018.

As the crowd chanted "Fidel! Fidel!", the longtime leader hailed the accomplishments of the revolution he led decades earlier and that continues to serve as the nation's political blueprint.

"The ideas of communist Cuba will live on as proof on this planet that if one works fervently and with dignity one can produce the material and cultural goods needed by man," Fidel proclaimed, seated on stage in his habitual tracksuit.

"We should fight without end to achieve them," the now-frail statesman, who led Cuba for 47 years, told the party meeting intended to set the island's economic and political path for the coming five years.

The 1,000 delegates present gave Fidel a standing ovation for his second public appearance in less than two weeks, and his third in about nine months.

There was little evidence at the meeting of Cuba's recent political and economic upheaval, as Havana continues the process of ending its bitter enmity with the United States and takes steps to introduce free market elements to its formerly tightly-controlled economy.

Wrapping up four days of closed-door meetings -- held a month after a landmark visit by US President Barack Obama -- Raul Castro said he would continue to govern with the same Politburo of elderly leaders, several of whom are in their 70s and 80s.

"This congress will be the last one led by the historic generation, which will hand over the banners of the revolution and socialism to the young generation," the 84-year-old leader said in a speech published by official Cuban media, who were alone in having access to the convention.

- No clear successor -

There were however some marginal tweaks to the Politburo, which has been expanded from 14 members to 17, official media reported.

Some of its members are former comrades-in-arms who fought six decades ago alongside the Castro brothers, founding fathers of Cuba's revolutionary regime.

The party also put in place a maximum age limit of 70 for the nation's top leaders, but decreed that this change will not go into effect until after 2021.

In another change, the new central leadership now will have four women, where there had been just one.

Raul Castro was affirmed first secretary by the party, and reaffirmed his intention to leave office in 2018, with no clear successor. He took over the reins of power a decade ago from his brother, who was suffering from a health crisis.

Fidel has since recovered enough to write a period column in the state-run media, but he has appeared frail in his public outings, and has never reclaimed his role at the pinnacle of Cuban power.

The party gathering decided that another key Cuban official, Jose Machado Ventura, 85, will also retain the key post as second secretary of the party, which he has held since 2011. Machado served an earlier stint as Cuba's first vice president.

Others held over from the old guard include armed forces chief General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, 72, and another general Ramon Espinosa, 77.

Two other key figures are departing from the Communist party leadership. Abelardo Colome gave up his post as minister of the interior in October because of health problems. Cuba's transport minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez, is also leaving his post.

Several up-and-comers also retained their posts in the Politburo, alongside the old guard, among them Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 58, and Miguel Diaz-Canel, 55, Cuba's first vice president.

The last congress, in 2011, had introduced significant reforms of the island's economy, cracking open the door to small-scale private enterprise and foreign investment.

Raul Castro earlier in the convention defended the slow pace of change to the island's economy, which has only cautiously and gradually opened up to some private entrepreneurship and foreign investment.