Raul Castro, Continent’s Oldest Ruler, Turns 85 / 14ymedio

Raul Castro, president of Cuba and first secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1931. (EFE)
Raul Castro, president of Cuba and first secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1931. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 3 June 2016 — Raul Castro will celebrate his 85th birthday on Friday without anyone overshadowing him as the oldest president across the entire continent. Jose Mujica, who left the presidency of Uruguay shortly before turning 80, has been the only one able to come close to the Cuban president and various Peruvian media have highlighted recently the possibility of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s election as president in Sunday’s elections; at 77 he would become the oldest-ever president of that country. Unlike Cuba’s general-president, these other two were elected in democratic and multiparty systems.

Raul Castro would not be a rara avis in Africa or Asia, continents where the preponderance of absolute monarchies and dictatorships allows heads of state to reach surprising ages. This is the case of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe who, at 92, remains in office. This patriarch of the international leaders came to power in 1987, when he was considered an anti-colonial hero who made an essential contribution to the independence of his country (in 1980) and was elevated first as prime minister and then as president. Over the years, accusations of clinging to power through electoral fraud and repression against his opponents (he is accused of genocide) have undermined the credibility of this old man who is the sole ruler in the world over 90.

He is followed at a short distance by a group of leaders who are tied at 88-years-old Among these is Kim Yong-Nam, chief of state for North Korea since 1998, with the job of president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, although in his case the leadership is relative, considering the Supreme Leader, Kim Yong-un. Also in this group are two kings of Asian countries with very different paths. Bhumibol Adulyadej has been the king of Thailand since 1946. His reign, which has lasted 69 years, is the longest in all of history and the world. However Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, king of Malaysia only since 2011, acceded to office at a staggering 84 years of age and is now 88.

Only one head of state in the Western Hemisphere is older than Raul Castro, Queen Elizabeth II who turned 90 in April. The Queen of England is a figure with notable constitutional and religious powers (she is head of the Anglican Church), and also serves as a symbol of cohesion of the United Kingdom and is an international ambassador for her country. However, national and international politics are governed by Parliament and the elected Government, leaving, in practice, symbolic functions for the Crown.

Except for the striking case of Mugabe, being in the 90s puts an end, one way or another, to the desire for leadership. Simon Peres, twice prime minister and president of the State of Israel from 2007 to 2014, left office when he was a month short of 91. Something similar happened with Giorgio Napolitano, president of Italy who left the post in 2015 just short of 90, after nine years as head of state and for health reasons. Other long mandates that came to an end only by the relentlessness of biology were that of President of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, who died in office at age 91, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died at 90, in January 2015.