- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

HAVANA (AP) — President Raul Castro is shoring up Cuba’s one-party rule after an unexpectedly smooth leadership change from his brother Fidel, announcing a Communist Party congress that should cement the move to a more institutionalized power structure.

The younger Castro announced yesterday that the party will hold its first congress in a dozen years on a yet-unspecified date in the second half of 2009. Fidel Castro officially still heads the party as first secretary, and the congress is likely to select a new chief, ending his last formal claim to power.

Party congresses historically have been held every five years or so to renew leadership and set major policies.

Castro also announced that officials would commute the death penalty for an unspecified number of common prisoners and he said it was reviewing the cases of two Central Americans on death row for hotel bombings — including one that killed an Italian tourist — as well as a U.S.-based exiled convicted of killing a fisherman during a 1994 commando raid.

Excerpts of his speech to party cadres were aired on state television.

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and relinquished power to Raul, five years his junior. He formally stepped down as president in February, but keeps a presence through essays published in state media.

The bearded revolutionary cast a large shadow over the island during his almost half-century in power. His once-high-pitched voice was the soundtrack of daily life as his hours-long speeches emanated from radios and television sets.

Far less charismatic, Raul shuns the public stage Fidel once relished and is moving to replace his brother’s personalized rule with the Communist Party’s collective leadership.

“In these times, and those to come, it will be necessary and decisive to count on political, government, mass, social and youth institutions,” Raul told party leaders. “When difficulties are greater, more order and discipline will be required. For that, it is vital to strengthen institutions.”

The younger Castro also shored up support for his own leadership by naming two military men and a political ally to the party’s select Politiburo. They are Gen. Alvaro Lopez Miera, defense vice minister and chief of staff, Ramiro Valdes Menendez, a revolutionary commander and communications minister, and Salvador Valdes Mesa, secretary-general of the Cuban Workers Union.

The new president spent most of his life as defense minister and he draws much of his support from the island’s armed forces.

Lopez Miera and Valdes Mesa were added to Cuba’s supreme governing body, the Council of State, when Raul Castro assumed the presidency two months ago. Valdes Menendez was already a member.

Raul Castro also announced a further centralization within the party by creating a super-exclusive directing committee of himself and six other men inside the 24-member Politburo. Fidel Castro was not among them.

The president said that the Council of State was reviewing the cases of Salvadorans Ernesto Cruz Leon and Otto Rene Rodriguez Llerena, who say Cuban exiles hired them for a 1997 bombing campaign to scare tourists away from the island.

Also under review is the case of Humberto Eladio Real Suarez of Florida, who was arrested after an October 1994 raid that killed a fisherman.

Cuba halted capital punishment from 2000 until 2003, when three armed men who hijacked a ferry were sent before a firing squad. The executions brought worldwide condemnation, and Raul Castro said capital punishment has not been applied since.

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