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Reading The Tea Leaves: Cuba's Communists Convene

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In Cuba this weekend, President Raul Castro will preside over the first meeting of the island's all-powerful Communist Party since last April. Castro has lowered expectations for any new economic reform announcements, saying that internal party affairs will be the business at hand.

But many Cubans will be watching for signs of who is rising in the party's ranks — and who could take over after Raul and Fidel Castro, both in their 80s, are gone.

During the 47 years that Fidel Castro ruled this island, he often surrounded himself with younger, hand-picked proteges like economic planner Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. They were always on TV, seemingly groomed as the next generation of Cuban leaders.

But in 2009 they were sacked, caught on secret recordings disparaging the Castros and their trusted circle of aging comrades. Raul Castro has made clear that the island's next leaders will have to rise through the party ranks in Cuba's provinces, says Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Havana journal Temas.

"Most of the Communist Party leaders in every province are very young. And taking into account the importance of Communist Party general secretary in every province, we will find that 40 percent of them are women. Many of them are blacks," Hernandez says.

Watching The Politburo

Many will be looking at this weekend's party conference for insight into who may be ascendant on Cuba's Politburo, not unlike the Kremlinology that once tried to decipher Soviet power relations. Raul Castro is 80 years old; his vice president is 81.

"When you are over 80 years old, you have to stop thinking of the next 10 years, or next six or seven years. You have to do what you're going to do right now," Hernandez says. "And the most important responsibility, the heaviest responsibility of this generation is to move forward, and to move forward as fast as possible into the Cuban transition toward a new Cuba and a new leadership."

Cuba's old leadership was a debate topic this week for Republican primary candidates in Florida facing questions about what would happen if Fidel Castro dies. The retired comandante fired back in one of his opinion columns Wednesday, calling their contest "the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance" he has ever heard.

That's about all Fidel Castro does these days. He's 85 and hasn't appeared in public in months. His brother Raul is firmly in charge, and whoever succeeds him is likely to follow the example he has set, gradually opening the economy to ease Cubans' frustrations.

But major political reforms are not in the offing, says Miriam Leiva, a former diplomat who became a dissident writer in Havana.

"The main thing is that they don't let the population decide anything. And they want to [stay] in power and decide everything," Leiva says, "because the Cuban population is accustomed to just accepting what comes from power, and Cubans know they cannot change anything."

At the last Communist Party meeting — held in April and the first of its kind in 14 years — Raul Castro surprised many with a proposal limiting public office to two five-year terms. He officially took over Cuba's presidency in 2008, so if he holds himself to that standard, his second term would be up in 2018, when he's 86 years old.

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