Image: Bay of Pigs anniversary
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Cuban soldiers march along the Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday.
updated 4/16/2011 7:33:36 PM ET 2011-04-16T23:33:36

Raul Castro proposed term limits for Cuban politicians on Saturday, a remarkable gesture on an island ruled for 52 years by him and his brother, but one unlikely to have a major effect on his own future.

The 79-year-old president told delegates to a crucial Communist Party summit that Cuban politicians and other important officials should be restricted to two, five-year terms. Castro officially took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, meaning he'd be at least 86 when his second term as Cuban leader ended, depending on how the law is written.

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The proposal for two terms of five years each was made at the latter stage of a long speech in which the Cuban leader forcefully backed a laundry list of economic changes that together represent a sea change for the country's socialist system, including the eventual elimination of the ration book and other subsidies, the decentralization of the economy and a new reliance on supply and demand in some sectors.

Still, he told party luminaries that he had rejected dozens of suggested reforms that would have allowed the concentration of property in private hands.

Castro said the country had ignored its problems for too long, and made clear Cuba had to make tough decisions if it wanted to survive.

"No country or person can spend more than they have," he said. "Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven — as we have sometimes pretended."

As with the proposals on economic changes, the idea does not yet carry the force of law since the party gathering lacks the powers of parliament. But it is all but certain to be acted on quickly by the national assembly.

Fidel Castro was not present for the speech, but a chair was left empty for him near his brother.

Story: Exiles await victory 50 years after Bay of Pigs

Raul Castro's remarks came at the start of a crucial Communist Party congress Saturday that was preceded by a military and civilian parade to mark 50 years since the defeat of CIA-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

Thousands of soldiers high-stepped through sprawling Revolution Plaza as a military band played martial music, not far from an iconic sculpture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara that gazes down from the side of the Interior Ministry building. Helicopters whirred and jet fighters in combat formation roared overhead while freshly painted amphibious assault vehicles and rocket launchers rumbled past.

"Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live the Communist Party of Cuba!" a female announcer shouted, and participants responded with shouts of approval.

Video: Cubans mark Bay of Pigs anniversary with parade (on this page)

Tweaking a theme from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a male announcer declared Cuba's revolution to be "Of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble."

President Raul Castro, the former head of Cuba's armed forces before taking over the presidency from his brother Fidel, donned military fatigues for the occasion. He looked on with other dignitaries from a dais, waving and saluting the troops. There was no sign of Fidel Castro.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans — from aging veterans to factory workers — took part, many ferried to the plaza on a fleet of aging Soviet-era buses and some shiny new ones purchased from China, leaving the rest of the city mostly deserted.

"It is a really good party," said Anaibis Fernandez, a 54-year-old employee at a Havana sports facility who was among the marchers. "There are a lot of people here and it's very well organized."

Legions of young people marched including a sea of schoolchildren surrounding a replica of the historic yacht "Granma," which ferried the Castros and other revolutionaries back from exile in Mexico in 1956. They twirled blue scarves emblazoned with "Che" Guevara's image over their heads to simulate waves.

Articles in state-run media called the youthful presence a symbol of the continuity of the 1959 revolution — an important theme for Cuban leaders these days, with President Raul Castro at 79 years old and his brother Fidel at 84.

Castro family's aging empire
Raul has acknowledged that this year's Communist Party gathering is likely to be the last overseen by the brothers and those who fought with them a half century ago. In speech after speech, he has lamented that the time the revolutionary generation has left is short, but the work needed to put Cuba's economy on track immense.

Slideshow: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader (on this page)

Since taking over the presidency permanently in 2008, Raul has turned over tens of thousands of acres of fallow government land to small farmers, opened the economy to a limited amount of free enterprise, and gradually cut some of the generous health and food subsidies Cubans have come to expect in return for working for extremely low wages.

He also has repeatedly warned Cubans that they must work harder if the island's moribund economy is to survive. Plans to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers have been delayed indefinitely, but Raul has insisted they are still part of a larger five-year reform plan.

Moving away from Marxism
More details of that plan are expected to emerge from the four-day congress, which was scheduled to open with a speech by Raul after the parade. Many Cubans are hoping the congress will expand the list of approved private enterprises and relax rules on buying and selling homes and automobiles, among other measures.

The changes announced by Raul so far have already been a significant departure for a Marxist system where the government employs four-fifths of the work force and dominates nearly the entire economy.

Yet Castro has vowed the changes are meant to improve Cuba's socialist system, not toss it out.

Story: '61 Bay of Pigs victory still inspires Cubans

It's no accident that the congress, the first since 1997, is being held on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs triumph and Fidel Castro's April 16, 1961, announcement that the revolution would forever be socialist in nature.

"It sort of emphasizes where they've been and where they're going now," said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington who was chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island from 1979 to 1982. "It'll be very interesting to see what comes out of this congress. Just what kind of a new system are we going to see?"

In addition to the economic changes, delegates are expected to vote in new party leaders after Fidel Castro's announcement last month that he is no longer first secretary. With Raul all but certain to take up his brother's mantle, all eyes will be on who is named to the No. 2 spot — a graying revolutionary comrade, or a fresh new face.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

  1. Closed captioning of: 50 years later, Cuba still celebrates

    >>> it's been 50 years since the bay of pigs invasion , one of the most infamous events in american history . but in cuba it's seen far differently. nbc's mark potter joins us now from havana with more. mark, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. this weekend cuba is remembering a critical moment in history still felt today. huge crowds have come out to celebrate in ways not seen here for years. in the plaza of the revolution, a massive display of military might and celebration of cuba 's victory 50 years ago at the bay of pigs , the failed invasion planned by the cia and backed by the u.s. military seen as a historic turning point for fidel castro .

    >> this is a watershed event for cuba that cuba in the track on alliance with the soviet union and in the role to hardcore communism.

    >> reporter: on april 17 , 1961 , 1400 cia-trained cuban exiles made landfall in southern cuba . the u.s. supplied them with planes, ships and armament. but in an attempt to hide its involvement, the kennedied administration withheld air support when the invasion began to fail.

    >> we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not irnts ventervein in any way.

    >> reporter: in just three days, castro's massive defense force crushed the invaders, killing more than 100, capturing more than 1,000. this now-tranquil area is where the main invasion force came ashore and was confronted by cuban fighters. in the mystery of the cuban revoluti revolution, this is a very important place. 70-year-old domingo rodriguez still remembers how invaders opened fire on its militia platoon. cuba radio host helped capture the attackers and is said the cuban victory was a worldwide embarrassment for the u.s.

    >> there were two or three small boats with the pirate sign.

    >> reporter: on the other side, in a bay of pigs museum in miami, cuban exile veterans mourn the anniversary. this man who flew a bomber in support of the invasion said the u.s. refusal to save the exiles still hurts.

    >> we were promised something that wasn't delivered so that's betrayal. would like to say, but i felt betrayal.

    >> reporter: at the war museum here, the solemn remembrance is for cuban lives lost defending the revolution in a battle that forever changed u.s./cuban relations. and on a day of history, there is concern here for the future. earlier today the communist party congress convened here to address new ways to fix cuba 's deeply troubled economy.

    >> mark potter in havana thanks.

Photos: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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  1. Three-year-old Fidel Castro is pictured here in 1929. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The three Castro brothers in 1941 from left to right: Fidel, Raul, and Ramon. Castro named his younger brother Raul his temporary successor on July, 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. It marked the first time that Castro had relinquished power in 47 years of rule. (Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Castro, at 17 years old, plays basketball at Belen Jesuit High School in 1943. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Castro took up arms against the Cuban regime of President Fulgencio Batista for the first time unsuccessfully in 1953. Hoping to spark a popular revolt, Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. He survived the attack, but was imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty he went to Mexico where he was detained by Mexican immigration authorities for training troops for another uprising in Cuba. He is shown here resting on his cot in December 1956 in a Mexico City jail. He was released shortly after this picture was taken and continued his fight against Batista. (Bettmann via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Castro is cheered by a village crowd on his victorious march into Havana in January 1959 after revolutionary forces seized control of Cuba. (Grey Villet / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Castro and his Marxist revolutionary ally, Che Guevara, try their hand at golf in 1959 after seizing power in the Cuban Revolution. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Havana in 1959. Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and his novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, centers on an aging Cuban fisherman. After the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway was forced to flee Cuba and return to Ketchum, Idaho where he lived out the last years of his life. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, January 6, 1959, days after the Cuban revolution ousted the Batista regime. The United States was the first nation to recognize Castro as Cuba's leader, but his radical economic reforms quickly rattled American leaders. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959. Castro visited the U.S. in April of 1959 as part of a charm offensive for his new government, but was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Castro speaking before a huge gathering of people in Cuba in 1960. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Castro and Ricardo Alarcón on national TV on April 9, 1961, a few days before the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba on April 15, 1961 known as the Bay of Pigs. Alarcón, head of the Cuban parliament since 1993, is still a close Castro confidante and his main point person on U.S. relations. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara shown during a meeting Havana in the early '60s. Castro declared his revolution to be a socialist movement on April 16, 1961. The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, happened the next day, on April 17, 1961. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting Castro's government. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces, marking a major defeat in the U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power. (Raul Corrales / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Castro cuts sugar cane in a Cuban field in October, 1962. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Castro learning to ski during a trip to Russia in 1962. The Soviet Union was a major source of military and economic aid for Cuba until its collapse in 1991. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Prime Minister Fidel Castro gives a radio and televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962 during which he talked about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba and the annoucement by President John F. Kennedy of a U.S. blockade of the island. The tense 13-day standoff over Soviet nuclear-armed missile installed on the island, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was resolved after Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles. (Keystone-France via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Castro, his bother Raul, and Che Guevara in 1963. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Castro holds the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to Moscow in May 1963. Taking advantage of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies for decades. The disappearance of Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union created hard times in Cuba known as the "Special Period" because of the tight rationing of food, fuel, and consumer goods. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Castro, a star pitcher at the University of Havana and longtime baseball fan, gets set to fire a ball as he pitches for Camaguey Province against Pinar Del Rio Province at Cuba's Veradero Beach in July 1964. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Cuba Leader Fidel Castro sits with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on March 8, 1977. In 2011, Castro criticized the United States involvement in Libya calling NATO's actions "genocide." (Arna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Castro, once a passionate cigar smoker, is seen here exhaling cigar smoke during an interview in March, 1985 at his presidential palace in Havana. He gave up the habit in 1986 citing health concerns. Cuba has long been known as the world's foremost producer of cigars and the industry generates over $200 million annually for the country's economy. Bans on smoking in public places were introduced in Cuba in 2005. (Charles Tasnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Castro took to the streets of Havana during the Aug. 5, 1994 riots, the largest anti-government riots since he had assumed power, that sparked the rafters crisis. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union the Cuban economy was in disarray and tens of thousands of Cubans cast out in homemade rafts to make the risky journey to the U.S. creating a migration crisis. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Castro visiting the Great Wall of China during a state visit in December, 1995. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba looked towards China more as a Communist ally. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Castro at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998 after the Pope arrived for his landmark visit to the communist nation. (Michel Gangne / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Castro talks with Elian Gonzalez during the inauguration of the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas" in Cardenas, Cuba on July 14, 2001.

    Gonzalez was aboard an overcrowded motorboat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother and others seeking to enter the United States illegally. He was rescued off Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, and then was at the center of a seven-month custody tug-of-war that culminated in US federal agents seizing him by force from Miami-based relatives. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro on Sept. 2, 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa where the two leaders were participating in the World Conference Against Racism. In power since the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Castro was one of the world's longest ruling leaders. Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer. (Jose Goitia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Cuban President Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talk after a friendly game of baseball at the Latinoamericano Stadium on May 14, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first visit by a former or sitting U.S. President since Castro came to power in 1959. (Jorge Rey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Castro speaks with his brother Raul Castro during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament during December 2003.

    Raul Castro, who has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel was sidelined by illness in 2006, became his official successor in February 2008. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Two women hold up the latest edition of Granma newspaper bearing the headline "Message from the Commander in Chief," on Feb. 19, 2008, in Havana. Castro stepped down that morning as the president of Cuba after a long illness, according to Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. (Jose Goitia / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Fidel Castro is seen on June 18, 2008 in Havana during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro, right. Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he fell during an appearance in July 2006, but the state-run media occassionally releases official photos of the ailing former leader. (Estudios Revolucion / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University on Sept. 3, 2010. Castro warned of the dangers of nuclear war in his first speech to the Cuban public since falling ill in 2006. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2011. Raul Castro, right, was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Castro looks at the camera during a rare public appearance to attend the inauguration of an art gallery on Jan. 8, 2014 in Havana. The gallery Castro visited is run by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Castro speaks with China's President Xi Jinping in Havana, on July 22, 2014. Xi Jinping said that his state visit to Cuba is aimed at carrying forward the traditional friendship between the two countries jointly built by Castro and the older generations of Chinese leaders, so as to inject new impetus into bilateral cooperation. (Alex Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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