HAVANA — Raul Castro was in a jovial mood on the eve of his 80th birthday, joking that he's in better shape than many 60-year-olds.
The Cuban president bantered with reporters Thursday at the Havana airport as he saw off Brazilian ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and noted that he joins older brother Fidel, 84, in the ranks of octogenarians on Friday.
"How do I look, ladies, how do I look at 80?" Castro quipped. "How many old men of 60 are there who aren't in my shape?"
Castro assumed the presidency in 2006 when his elder brother temporarily stepped aside due to a life-threatening intestinal illness, and more permanently in 2008 when Fidel left office for good.
The Castros have historically celebrated their birthdays with little fanfare, and officials recently said they had no word of any public events to mark Raul's 80th, yet it still serves as a reminder that the brothers' five-decade political domination of the island is nearing an end due to the immutable laws of nature.
At a Communist Party Congress held in April to chart the country's future, Raul Castro spoke of a need to breathe new life into leadership with fresh faces and ideas, and he even proposed limiting all public officials to two five-year terms. However the summit ended with the naming of a ruling council largely made up of graying old-guard figures, as Castro acknowledged a failure to groom a new generation of leadership.
With a humorous tone still in his voice, Castro said Thursday that "it's a shame" he can't retire yet since he's in his first of two possible terms as president.
Castro also briefly addressed the hundreds of economic changes that were approved at the summit but must still be turned into law, repeating previous statements that the process is complicated and officials will not act hastily.
"There are so many things that have to be fixed legally," Castro said. "There are thousands of laws and decrees that we have to be fixing in an orderly manner, institutionally, many existing things that are absurd or had a proper beginning and are now outdated."
The economic guidelines laid out by the party would apparently reduce the size of government while making it easier for people to buy and sell private property, run small businesses and cooperatives and get credit.
Details have been emerging slowly, and it's too early to tell how much they will help Cuba's struggling economy. Officials insist they do not represent an embrace of capitalism, but are an update to the island's socialist system.
Castro spoke a day after showing Silva around a multimillion-dollar joint port development project that Cuba hopes will create a major base for industry and oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mariel port facility, about 30 miles (45 kilometers) west of Havana, is undergoing an overhaul to accommodate ships with a draft of up to 50 feet (15 meters) – bigger than the port of Havana is able to handle – Communist Party newspaper Granma said Thursday.
The initial stage of the upgrade calls for the construction of about 700 yards (meters) of docks that will permit the port to begin operations. Cuba also plans highway and rail links to the port, plus a container terminal.
Brazil has invested $300 million in the joint project, and Silva's visit signals continued Brazilian interest in helping Cuba develop its oil industry despite pulling out of deep-water exploration in the Gulf.
"I'm impressed. I think things are advancing well," Silva said at the airport.
He told reporters he hopes current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be able to visit Cuba soon, and that Raul Castro can return the courtesy.
He added that he met with Fidel Castro the previous day behind closed doors, and said, "He was very talkative, like always."
Silva was flying next to Venezuela.