Cuban leader Raul Castro (pictured) and a hardline ally have been picked to preside over a sweeping reform of the Cuban economy designed to encourage private enterprise while remaining true to the country's socialist principles.
REUTERS - Cuba's Communist Party selected President Raul Castro and a hardline ally as its top chiefs on Tuesday, entrusting old guard leaders to steer wide-ranging reforms of the Caribbean island's economy.
As expected, Raul Castro, 79, was named to replace his older brother Fidel Castro as first secretary of the ruling party's Central Committee.
But the appointment of First Vice President Jose Machado Ventura, 80, as second secretary signalled that Cuba's aging leadership was not yet ready for new blood at the top of one of the world's last communist states. He is viewed as a hardline communist ideologue.
Cuba's planned transition to a market economy
Castro indicated that while Cuba will reform its economy, he will make sure it stays socialist.
"I assume my last job with the firm conviction and commitment ... to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never permit the return of the capitalist regime," he said to great applause from the 1,000 delegates.
The two aging communists will preside over the biggest changes in years to the island's struggling economy, which were approved on Monday at the party's first congress in 14 years.
The package of more than 300 reforms aims to reduce spending by the debt-ridden government, cut subsidies, give more autonomy to state enterprises and encourage more foreign investment as part of a general overhaul of the Soviet-style economy. But central planning will remain.
In two of the bigger issues for average Cubans, the food ration all have received since 1963 will be phased out for those who do not need it and the buying and selling of homes will be permitted for the first time in many years.
Some changes, including the slashing of more than a million government jobs, allowing more self-employment and leasing state land to private farmers, are already in place or under way.
Few new faces in Politburo
Raul Castro and Machado Ventura fought in Cuba's revolution and head the aging revolutionaries who have run the government and resisted U.S. pressure for political change since they helped topple U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
A number of others in the leadership are in their 70s and 80s. The age issue is a concern because President Castro said they had not groomed young leaders to replace them.
Raul Castro, who served as defense minister for 49 years under his older brother before replacing him as president in 2008, said in a speech on Saturday the party was considering limiting future leaders, including himself, to two five-year terms.
Machado Ventura, a medical doctor who joined the Castro brothers early in their revolutionary campaign from the Sierra Maestra mountains, is first in line to succeed Raul Castro.
Raul Castro said 15 people, including him and Machado Ventura, had been named to the powerful Political Bureau. Only three of them were new members -- reforms czar Marino Murillo, first secretary of the Communist Party in Havana Mercedes Lopez Acea, and Economy Minister Adel Izquierdo Rodriguez.
The Politburo also includes five generals, not counting Raul Castro, reflecting the military's key role in the Cuban government.
Former President Fidel Castro, 84, who had already said he relinquished the first secretary position five years ago, made his first appearance at the congress on Tuesday.
Wearing a blue gym suit, he had to be helped to his seat at the front of the congress.
Fidel Castro has said he resigned from his party leader post, without publicly disclosing it, when he fell seriously ill in 2006.