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Fidel Castro makes rare political appearance


As Cuba's newly elected National Assembly gathered Sunday morning to reelect President Raul Castro for a new five-year term, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro was in his seat on the stage for the first time since falling ill in 2006. And as he looked on, his younger brother Raul, 81, announced not only term limits but age limits for top leaders.

All involved welcomed the election of 52-year old Miguel Diaz-Canel as "First Vice President" and future successor to the presidency.

Fidel Castro has remained a deputy to the parliament but his public participation has been limited to an extraordinary session called at his request in August 2010 to discuss world peace. He was reelected last February 3rd but most Cubans and foreign observers considered his election symbolic. He had not been expected to attend Sunday's session.

Diaz Canel, an electrical engineer by training, a former professor and minister of Higher Education and lastly a vice president of the Council of Ministers is the first person who did not participate in Cuba's 1959 Revolution to be promoted to such a high post. Diaz Canel, who will be 53, on April 22 stands out significantly in what has been a government of octogenarians. He rose up through the Communist Party ranks and was a popular Party leader in the provinces of Las Villas and Holguin before moving onto the national stage.

Most Cubans had expected Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 83, to be reaffirmed as "First Vice President," but President Castro said Machado had voluntarily stepped aside to make room for the "younger" generation. He remains one of the country's five vice presidents and Second Secretary of the Communist Party. Machado has been one of the most visible government figures traveling throughout the island to check on everything from storm damage to rice production, despite his advanced age.

Also re-elected as vice presidents (there's five in Cuba) are Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdes, 80, and Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano, 66. Two new vice presidents are 48-year old Mercedes Lopez Acea, head of the Communist Party in Havana and official trade union confederation leader Salvador Valdes Mesa, 64.

Esteban Lazo, a Communist Party Political Bureau member, was elected president of the new National Assembly Sunday morning.

He took up the position being vacated after twenty years by another Political Bureau member, Ricardo Alarcon. Lazo is 68 years old, and Alarcon is 75.

Many Cubans and international observers considered being named head of parliament a form of being sidelined, as the National Assembly meets in plenary only twice a year and has long been considered by critics as a rubber-stamp body rather than one that engages in relevant debate.

The gathering has garnered much speculation as to what younger figures might be moved into more prominent leadership positions.

Raul Castro began his 30-minute closing address to the parliament by reiterating he had "not been elected to restore capitalism," underlining the government's insistence that economic reforms launched over the past five years by Castro are a perfecting or redesigning of their socialist system.

He talked about the public's positive reception of the new relaxed migration policy that went into effect in January, and said the government would continue tweaking the economy but not impose shock tactics or leave anyone abandoned. He also emphasized the battle against corruption would continue.

Interestingly, Castro did not mention the United States in his address, although he did say the fight for the freedom and return of five Cuban men jailed as spies in the U.S. would continue.

Of the 612 members of parliament being sworn in Sunday morning, 67 percent of them were first-timers.

Julia Sweig, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said she doesn't see the anticipated reelection of Raul Castro as a sign of maintaining the status quo.

"Who better to advance a reform agenda than the one with the backing of Fidel and the bona fides of his own history?" Sweig hypothesized. "The best sign that he is the owner of the reform agenda are the reforms themselves -- migration policy, private sector, shrinking the state. These were all laid out in his first inaugural address and he has spent the last 5 years putting them into effect. I guess the question to ask is: Who other than Raul Castro could move the reform agenda forward any faster within the stable order he has maintained?"

Arturo Lopez-Levy, professor at the University of Denver's School of International Studies, agreed that precisely because of the transition instituted by Raul Castro, the National Assembly elected in five years' time will be different in composition from the one convened Sunday.

"If Cuba carries out its economic reform and integrates more with its diasporas and the world, it will also be transformed politically," said Lopez-Levy, a Cuban American and graduate of Cuba's Higher Institute of International relations

"With the economy and the society changing, political power will not remain the same," he said. "The rise of the non-state sector and new information flows, investment and technology are likely to play a pluralizing role in the political system."

Like many local observes, Lopez-Levy believes the "emergent cooperative and private sectors empower new social actors with specific interests to represent in the political arena. Ordinary citizens will organize more horizontally and become more aware of their economic and political rights as consumers, workers and entrepreneurs."

Lopez-Levy cautioned that "this doesn't mean a transition to a multiparty democracy in the next five years, but it will entail the broadening of the current People's Power system."

Sweig said she already sees a change in the Assembly's composition.

"My sense is that the gender, race, geographic, professional and ultimately political-ideological balance of the National Assembly today already is reflecting the new Cuba that is molting before our eyes," Sweig said. "And yes, the more new social groups and new economic interests begin to take on legitimacy, and benefit from legal-juridical base, the more we will see this diversity expressed in politics."

The new parliament increased its percentage of women from 43 in 2008 to 48 percent on Sunday; non-white members have gone from 35 to 37 percent in that time period; and the average age has dropped from 49 to 48 years.

In a recent panel on "Problems of the Socialist Transition in Cuba," sponsored by the Cuban magazine Temas as part of the Havana Book Fair, Mayra Espina concluded that there was "a rupture of the vertical hierarchical system of running the economy."

Temas editor, Rafael Hernandez took this further when he said: "The reforms signify a systemic change in policy, involving a redistribution of power."

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how much control the Cuban government and Communist Party is willing to relinquish. Nearly all of the newly sworn-in in parliament are members of the Communist Party. Less than a dozen are not.

More than half of the members of the 115-member Party Central Committee are deputies to parliament. So are 14 of the current 15 members of the Party Political Bureau. The exception is Alarcon who was not on the ballot in the last election. In addition, all the Party leaders in the country's provinces, all cabinet ministers but one (culture), and 14 of the 15 provincial government presidents are also in the parliament.

Furthermore, over the last five years, the parliament approved seven laws, plus the budget and the annual economic plan. During that same period, the Council of State issued 42 decree-laws, among them nearly all of the considerable economic reforms.

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