Younger Castro brother turns 80 in aging regime
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA -- Cuban President Raul Castro is set to join elder sibling Fidel
in the ranks of octogenarians this week, even as he spearheads efforts
to rejuvenate the Communist-run island's tired economy.
The big day comes Friday, June 3, and it is likely to pass with little
fanfare. Raul and Fidel - who turns 85 on Aug. 13 - have historically
eschewed public celebrations of their birthdays, and the government told
The Associated Press it had no word of any official events to mark the day.
But the milestone is sure to remind supporters and detractors alike that
the era of the Castros is nearing its end, biologically if not
politically. Raul is already a month older than Fidel was when a
near-fatal illness forced him to step down - temporarily, then
permanently - in 2006. In April, Fidel gave up his final post as head of
the Communist Party.
"Fidel is out at the age of 85 - and he was always much healthier than
Raul as a young man - and now Raul is 80," said Ann Louise Bardach, a
longtime Cuba expert and author of "Without Fidel" and "Cuba Confidential."
She gave Raul credit for having the courage to push an agenda of
economic change since taking over the presidency, but said he missed a
great chance to bring in new leadership at a key Communist Party summit
in April when he selected old-guard revolutionaries Jose Ramon Machado
Ventura, 80, and Ramiro Valdes, 79, as his Nos. 2 and 3.
"Their challenge is that they must bring in a younger generation, but
instead Raul picked someone even older than him as his chief deputy,"
she said. "It just shows how unconfident they are. They missed an
On the streets of the capital, Havana, reactions to the president's
round-number birthday were mixed.
"I'm not so concerned about his age because he looks like he's in good
health," said Marcelo Delgado, a 72-year-old retiree. "What I am worried
about is that it seems to be taking a long time to bring in the economic
changes he is talking about, and there isn't much time left."
Since taking office, Raul has legalized some forms of self-employment,
turned over fallow government land to small-time farmers and promised to
trim the state's bloated payroll by 500,000 workers.
He also has pledged to legalize the sale of cars and homes, end
restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad and open up credit to would-be
entrepreneurs - though those proposals remain part of a vague five-year
plan and many are still skeptical.
"Raul is going to turn 80, and the others are even older," said Ernesto,
a 26-year-old Havana resident, who asked that he only be identified by
his first name for fear he could get into trouble for speaking out about
the country's leaders.
"To make real changes the country needs young people," he said. "Raul
talks a lot about giving power to the young, but I ask you, 'Where are
Those with long years of involvement in the island's affairs say Raul's
birthday is a moment for reflection.
Wayne Smith, who was a young foreign service officer in Havana when
President John F. Kennedy pulled U.S. diplomats off the island in 1961,
said he never thought at the time that the Castros would still be in
power all these years later, nor that Cuba would still be America's enemy.
"Good Lord, no," chuckled Smith, who is now a senior fellow at the
Washington-based Center for International Policy. "When we left in 1961,
I expected to be back shortly. Here we are more than 50 years after the
revolution and we still haven't come to a decent relationship with them."
Smith, who returned to Havana as America's chief diplomat in 1979 and
remains an outspoken opponent of Washington's 49-year trade embargo,
said he was hopeful Raul Castro could make good on his economic overhaul
now that he is in command and out from under his charismatic brother's
"It will be interesting to see how far they get before he does pass from
the scene, because of course he will," Smith said.
That would be fine with many Cuban exiles in Miami, who have grown old
themselves waiting for an end to the brothers' reign.
"He's 80 and he may have another four or five birthday celebrations,"
said Pepe Hernandez, head of the Cuban American National Foundation, a
Miami-based exile organization. "But our concern is what happens after
that, and in Cuba they don't seem very concerned about that. I think we
should be concerned about what happens when there are no more birthday
parties for Raul."
One person who is unmoved by Castro's birthday is Daniel Torres, a
69-year-old retired veteran in Miami who left Cuba shortly after the
1959 revolution because he says he was threatened with jail time for
speaking out against the government.
"After 52 years of tears and suffering, I don't know what else to say,"
he said. "It's a shame he's made it to 80."