Wednesday, April 20th 2011, 4:00 AM
HAVANA - Cuba's Communist Party stuck Tuesday with a slate of silver-haired icons of the revolution to spearhead a last-ditch effort to save the island's sputtering economy - surprising those who took to heart declarations by Raul and Fidel Castro that it was time to give way to a new generation of leaders.
Delegates to a key Party Congress picked 79-year-old Raul Castro to replace his ailing brother at the helm, while weathered veterans moved up to the No. 2 and 3 positions. Three somewhat younger politicians were named to lesser roles in the leadership council, but it remained dominated by men who came of age before television, let alone the Internet.
Fidel Castro made a surprise appearance, to thunderous applause from delegates, many of whom could be seen crying as he was helped to his place on stage by a young aide, then stood at attention during Cuba's national anthem.
Wearing a blue track suit over a checked shirt, the 84-year-old revolutionary leader looked unsteady on his feet as he clutched the aide's arm, and at times slumped in his chair. He became more animated as the proceedings continued, especially when Raul's name was read out by an official announcing members of the party's Central Committee. Fidel was left off the leadership slate for the first time.
But Raul said his brother needed no formal title to continue being the country's guiding light. "Fidel is Fidel," he said.
In a speech closing out the Congress, Raul acknowledged the lack of fresh faces, saying the country had failed to develop young leaders because of errors committed in the past, including by him and his brother.
"We have kept various veterans of the historic generation, and that is logical due to the consequences of the mistakes that have been made in this area," Raul told 1,000 delegates gathered in a sprawling Havana convention center.
"These have robbed us of a back bench of mature substitutes with enough experience to take on the country's top positions."
Named party second secretary was Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, an 80-year-old stalwart who set up field hospitals for the Castros when they were young rebels fighting to topple Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. The No. 3 spot went to Ramiro Valdes, a 78-year-old vice president who was with the brothers when they launched the revolution aboard the Granma yacht in 1956.
Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba expert and author of "Without Fidel" and "Cuba Confidential," said the much-anticipated leadership announcement fell flat, with Raul Castro, Machado Ventura and Valdes continuing to run things.