- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

HAVANA | Raul Castro has begged patience from those seeking a generational change in Cuba, saying the country still lacks young leaders with the experience to take the revolution forward 52 years after he and his brother came to power.

But observers say that the Castros have only themselves to blame, and that a history of cutting the legs out from under promising politicians has marked their rule almost from its inception.

“The lack of confidence Raul feels in young apparatchiks is based on the fact he doesn’t understand their impatience or the speed at which they want to accelerate the process [of economic and political change],” said Eduardo Bueno, a professor of international relations at Mexico’s Iberoamerican University. “The founding generation is extremely closed, and this ethic has served to discredit young leaders.”

Raul and Fidel Castro have often criticized the young for a lack of revolutionary bona fides, saying that what they had was handed to them, rather than earned through valiant struggle.

The generation gap was never more apparent than at last week’s Communist Party Congress, when Raul named elderly revolutionary figures Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 80, and Ramiro Valdes, 78, as his principal deputies.

Three relatively young politicians were elevated to the 15-member party leadership council, but in lesser roles.

The changes fell far short of what many observers expected after hearing the emphatic declarations of both Castro brothers that the time had come for “rejuvenation” of the party, and that the old must clear a path for future leaders.

Raul seemed to acknowledge the gap between his words and final action in his closing speech, going out of his way to explain that because of bad choices, nobody acceptable was available to promote.

But he implied that the error was having put faith in the wrong people — not having undercut fast-rising stars.

Raul hinted that some fresh faces might be added to the leadership council in January, when the Communist Party will hold another important gathering.

In Cuba, those who have flown too high, too fast, have often found themselves falling back to earth, most famously in the case of Vice President Carlos Lage, then 57, and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, then 43, who were suddenly fired in March 2009.

Both were seen as potential post-Castro leaders, and enjoyed relative respect in Washington and key European capitals. And neither was afraid to put himself in front of the cameras in a country where excessive publicity is not necessarily the safest path to success.

In the end, it was a camera neither man was aware of that did them in. Both were captured on a secret videotape drinking whiskey and joking about the country’s old leaders.

A day after President Raul Castro fired them, Fidel made clear that the one-time proteges had lost both brothers’ confidence and hinted that they were cut loose because their angling for leadership roles had become unseemly.

“The honey of power … awoke in them ambitions which led them to undignified behavior,” Fidel wrote. “The foreign enemy filled them with illusions.”

After Fidel’s sharp words, Mr. Lage and Mr. Perez Roque promptly fell on their swords, accepted responsibility and withdrew into a quiet forced retirement that is common enough in Cuba to have its own name: the “Plan Pijama,” or Pajama Plan.

Mr. Lage is reportedly now a low-level hospital administrator. Mr. Perez Roque works as an engineer at an industrial park on the outskirts of the capital.

While the video has never been made public, it has been shown to thousands of Communist Party members across the island, an object lesson to those who might repeat the mistake.

This kind of cautionary tale has played out again and again since the 1959 revolution.

Mr. Perez Roquez’s young predecessor as foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, was fired in 2002, apparently for disloyalty after he implied he might be in line for the presidency in a post-Castro Cuba, as well as for accepting favors from foreign leaders and businessmen. He now paints pictures of rural landscapes in his Havana home.

Another young and once-trusted aide, Carlos Valenciaga, a member of Cuba’s Council of State and Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, was removed for unknown reasons in 2008.

Cuba’s political paralysis has been in stark contrast to the bold free-market economic changes Raul Castro has enacted since taking over, including making it easier for Cubans to work for themselves, hire employees and rent out rooms and cars.

At the Communist Party Congress, delegates approved more than 300 other changes, including a proposal to legalize the sale of private property.

While the cynical might feel the revolutionary leaders lack the credibility to champion those changes, Mr. Bueno said that Raul Castro saw it as his final duty to prepare the country for the day that he and his brother are gone.

“They see themselves as the leaders of this big change,” Mr. Bueno said. “It’s all about correcting errors [of the past], but within the framework of socialism.”

The reluctance of Cuba’s leaders to put their faith in the younger generation is striking, given that they were once symbols of youth themselves.

Fidel was just 32 when he came to power in 1959, and Raul 27. Their comrade in arms, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was 31 and had no financial experience whatsoever when he was named head of Cuba’s Central Bank.

Before he was killed in Bolivia in 1967, the Argentine rebel often retold the apparently apocryphal story that when Fidel was looking for a new bank chief, he asked at a meeting of victorious insurgents if any of them were good “economists.”

Mishearing and believing the comandante wanted to know who among them was a “communist,” Che raised his hand — and got the job.

Uva de Aragon, a Cuba expert at Florida International University, said that a half-century later the contradictions Cuba is living are clear, and can be seen in the gap between Raul’s stated intention to promote the young, and his continued reliance on an inner circle of rebel comrades whose trust was earned in blood.

“On the one hand, a generation is in power which is trapped by its age — with all the physical and mental limitations that implies — and by its history, ideology and desire to stay in power,” she said. “On the other hand, the country is broken and they know they need to make urgent reforms.”