Castro confirms he is passing Cuban Communist Party leadership to new generation

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) -Raul Castro confirmed he was handing over the leadership of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party to a younger generation at its congress that kicked off on Friday, ending six decades of rule by himself and older brother Fidel.

In a speech opening the four-day event, Castro, 89, said the new leadership were party loyalists with decades of experience working their way up the ranks and were “full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit”.

Castro had said at the last party congress in 2016 it would be the last one led by the “historic generation” who fought in the Sierra Maestra to topple a U.S.-backed dictator in a 1959 leftist revolution. He already handed over the presidency to protégé Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, in 2018.

The congress is the party’s most important meeting, held every five years to review policy and fix leadership.

“I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots, and as long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrups to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism,” Castro told hundreds of party delegates gathered at a convention center in Havana.

The congress is a closed-door event but excerpts are being broadcast on state television.

Castro hailed Diaz-Canel as one of the new generation of leaders, praising the “good results” he had achieved in his three years in office.

Castro’s olive green military fatigues contrasted with the civil get-up of his protégé who is widely expected to succeed him as party first secretary, the most powerful position in Cuba’s one-party system.

Cuba’s new leaders face the worst economic crisis since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union, and there are signs of growing frustration, especially among younger Cubans.

A tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated a liquidity crisis in the ailing centrally planned economy, which was already struggling following a decline in Venezuelan aid.

That has led to shortages of even basic goods, with many Cubans spending hours lining up to buy groceries.

Castro denounced renewed U.S. hostility under former President Donald Trump, who unraveled a détente he had forged with former President Barack Obama.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has vowed to roll back some of Trump’s sanctions, although the White House said on Friday a shift in Cuba policy was not among his top foreign policy priorities.

Castro said Cuba was ready for a new relationship.

“I ratify from this party congress the will to develop a respectful dialogue and edify a new type of relationship with the United States without, in order to achieve it, Cuba having to renounce the principles of the revolution and socialism,” he said.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Rosalba O’Brien and Daniel Wallis)

Canadian diplomats hit by Cuba illness feel ‘abandoned’: paper

People pass by the Canada's Embassy in Havana, Cuba, April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

OTTAWA (Reuters) – A group of Canadian diplomats who left the embassy in Cuba after they suffered unusual health symptoms says their foreign ministry has abandoned them, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on Monday.

Canada said in April it would remove the families of staff posted to Havana, where both Canadian and U.S. diplomats have complained of dizziness, headaches and nausea.

The diplomats complained the foreign ministry – unlike the U.S. State Department – had said very little about the matter in public and did not appear to be making their case a priority. Getting specialized medical care had been difficult, they added.

“We did not expect to be abandoned, or more precisely, sacrificed — that’s how we’re feeling now,” the paper quoted one of them as saying.

Several of those affected believe Ottawa has said little in public because it wants to maintain friendly relations with Cuba, the Globe added.

The office of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was not immediately available for comment. The Globe cited Freeland spokesman Adam Austen as saying “we will continue to do all we can to provide advice and support” to those affected.

U.S. and Cuban officials met at the State Department in September to discuss the mysterious health problems. The United States has reduced embassy staffing in Cuba from more than 50 to a maximum 18.

NBC News said in September that U.S. officials believe the health problems may have been caused by sophisticated electromagnetic weapons.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Cuba says cause of illness in U.S. diplomats remains a mystery

A vintage car passes by in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba said on Sunday it remained baffled by health issues affecting U.S. diplomats, after the U.S. State Department reported two Cuba-based functionaries had symptoms similar to previous cases that began in late 2016.

The State Department said on Friday the cases were similar to those of 24 diplomats and family members taken ill through 2017, leading to a drawdown of personnel in Havana to a skeleton staff and the expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington.

The United States also issued a travel warning for its citizens.

Sunday’s foreign ministry statement termed those actions politically motivated, pointing out that “after more than a year of investigations by Cuba and the United States … there are no credible hypotheses nor scientific conclusions that justify the actions taken by the U.S. government against Cuba.”

The statement said Cuba was informed of one case in late May where “a functionary of the (U.S.) embassy on the 27th of the same month had reported health symptoms as a result of ‘undefined sounds’ in her residence.”

The statement said an exhaustive search of the area around the residence had turned up nothing out of the ordinary and its specialists had been denied access to the functionary.

Cuba said it remained ready to work with the United States to determine what, if anything, was causing the illnesses after its own investigation had uncovered no evidence of foul play.

U.S. experts have yet to determine who or what is behind the mysterious illnesses.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has partly rolled back a detente with Cuba, first charged diplomats were the victims of “sonic attacks” and Cuba as the host country was at a minimum responsible for their safety.

Symptoms suffered by the diplomats have included hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, headaches and fatigue, a pattern consistent with “mild traumatic brain injury,” State Department officials have said.

In April, Canada, whose personnel were also stricken, said it would remove families of diplomats posted at its embassy in Cuba as information from medical specialists has raised concerns of a new type of brain injury.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday it has brought a group of diplomats home from Guangzhou, China, over concern they were suffering from a mysterious malady that resembles a brain injury and has already affected U.S. personnel in Cuba.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Cubans throng Revolution Square in mourning for Fidel Castro

People stand in line to pay tribute to Cuba's late President Fidel Castro in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba,

By Nelson Acosta and Ana Isabel Martinez

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans will begin massing on Havana’s Revolution Square from Monday to commemorate Fidel Castro, the communist guerrilla leader who led a revolution in 1959 and ruled the Caribbean island for half a century.

Castro died on Friday at the age of 90, a decade after stepping down due to poor health and ceding power to his brother Raul Castro.

Castro was cremated on Saturday and a nine-day period of mourning declared. His ashes will be carried in a cortege to a final resting place in Santiago de Cuba, the city in eastern Cuba where he launched the revolution.

The government has invited people to Revolution Square for a two-day ceremony starting at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT). The urn holding the late leader’s ashes could be displayed.

Workers rushed to install speakers and light standards in the plaza, where a giant photograph of Castro was draped over the national library, the same space where an enormous poster of Jesus Christ was hung for last year’s visit by Pope Francis.

“Who is not going to be affected by a man who did everything for us?” said Jose Luis Herrera, part of the 12-person crew to hang the giant image. “He is the one who guided me and my children. He is my god.”

If previous public memorials are any guide, Raul Castro and other government, Communist Party and military leaders will lay flowers near the monument to Cuban national hero Jose Marti, followed by a long line of ordinary Cubans.

The ceremony in the capital will end on Tuesday night when foreign leaders are expected to pay their respects to a man who dedicated his life to fighting capitalist and colonial oppression, aligned his country with the Soviet Union and outlasted nine U.S. presidents who had sought to oust or undermine him.

Some world leaders will be notably absent.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin would not attend the funeral as he was preparing for a major speech. His close ally and speaker of the Russian State Duma or lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, would lead the Russian delegation, it said.

North Korea called for three days of mourning and said it would keep flags at half mast to honor Castro, its state news agency said.

And in Japan, Kyodo said that a senior lawmaker would head to Cuba in lieu of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

BIRTHPLACE OF THE REVOLUTION

A cortege will carry Castro’s remains east across the 750-mile-long (1,200-km long), eyebrow-shaped island to Santiago de Cuba. His cremated ashes will be laid to rest in the birthplace of the revolution when the mourning period ends on Dec. 4.

Along the way, admirers will mourn a man that many here saw as a visionary who stood up to U.S. domination of Latin America, brought healthcare and education to the poor, and inspired socialist movements across the world.

But critics, including exiles concentrated largely in Miami, have celebrated Castro’s death, saying he was a tyrant who jailed his opponents, banned opposition parties and wrecked Cuba’s economy with a failed socialist experiment.

Reacting to his death, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”

Trump has also has threatened to reverse outgoing President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, which included restoring diplomatic relations and easing a half-century economic embargo.

Tourists passed through Revolution Square on Sunday, snapping photos and taking joy rides in classic U.S. cars from the 1950s that are still widely used.

“What I have been impressed with is the love that the Cuban people had for him,” said Martha Pons, a Mexican tourist who came to Cuba to attend a Placido Domingo concert on Saturday that was postponed after Castro’s death.

Cuba’s rich variety of music, a soundtrack on the streets of Havana, has been muted since Friday night and the government has also temporarily banned alcohol sales and suspended the professional baseball season.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana, Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Tony Munroe in Seoul and William Mallard in Toyko; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Simon Gardner, Simon Cameron-Moore and Bernadette Baum)