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New Castro, same Cuba

Fidel's brother Raul takes over and promises little change.

By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published February 25, 2008


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Raul Castro raises his arm and clenches his fist as he shouts "Viva Fidel," meaning "Long live Fidel," during his first speech in a session of Cuba's National Assembly in Havana, where he was unanimously elected the country's president.

HAVANA - Fidel Castro wasn't there in person, but there was no mistaking his presence.

After decades in the shadow of his older brother, longtime Defense Minister Raul Castro was unanimously elected president of Cuba on Sunday by the country's 614-member National Assembly, drawn largely from Cuba's Communist Party ranks.

In a 50-minute speech delivered after the voting, Raul Castro, 76, wearing a business suit, sought to quash any expectation that things will change.

While accepting his new role, he exclaimed there is "only one commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution. ... Fidel is irreplaceable."

In recognition of this, he appealed to the assembly to allow him to continue consulting his brother over "decisions of special transcendence for the future of our nation," including defense, foreign policy and economic affairs.

He received a standing ovation, and the proposal was unanimously approved on the spot.

"We must realize that for several years to come, Fidel Castro will remain as a key player," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence adviser who now lives in Miami. "He is not out of the game."

The Bush administration sought to disqualify Raul Castro's election, calling it the transfer of power from one dictator to another.

Instead of bringing in new blood to replace an ailing Fidel Castro, 81, who retired from active politics last week, the assembly stuck with Cuba's old guard of revolutionaries for the top positions, including president, vice president and five deputy vice presidents.

In a closing of ranks, the assembly elected Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 77, the ideological head of the Communist Party and considered a close adviser of Fidel Castro, as the country's first vice president. He was chosen over the country's economic czar, Carlos Lage, who had been widely touted for the post. Lage was not ignored, however, and was re-elected as one of the deputy vice presidents.

One of Raul Castro's right-hand military advisers and the deputy defense minister, Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, was also promoted to vice president. Casas Regueiro, who turned 72 last week, is a key figure in the Ministry of Defense's commercial ventures, which span tourism, agriculture, import-export businesses, retail stores and other enterprises.

Another veteran Castro loyalist, Ricardo Alarcon, was re-elected president of the National Assembly.

The elevation of Machado Ventura and Casas Regueiro appears designed to send a signal of stability and continuity, rather than any break with the past.

But as a sign of some political balance, several new faces were elected to the all-important, 31-member Council of State, Cuba's top executive body.

The former Council of State was overdue for renewal, with two-thirds of its members older than 60, and only two each in their 30s and 40s. About half of the members fought in the revolution in the late 1950s. The average age of the new National Assembly is 49, with some 56 percent of its members born after Castro seized power in 1959.

Despite the country's historic change of leadership, the mood on Cuban streets was subdued. There were no rallies or marches, no public outpourings of joy or grief.

Fidel Castro's long absence from public life since falling ill has given Cubans time to get used to the idea that their leader would eventually be replaced. "Fidel prepared this all a long time ago. He's a wise old fox," said Hugo Lopez, 65, who runs a secondhand book stall in Vedado district.

It's unclear how far the new leadership will be willing to go toward opening the economy. Last July, Raul Castro spoke of unspecified "structural and conceptual changes," acknowledged that state salaries were "clearly insufficient" to meet basic needs, and called for an open discussion of system problems.

So far, there have been few changes beyond a rise in the price the state pays farmers for various products to increase food production.

While spending much of his speech insisting on the importance of unity and revolutionary discipline rather than change, Raul Castro recognized that the country's economy and some of its laws need radical reform.

He focused on the need to reduce state bureaucracy and streamline some ministries, as well as meet the basic necessities of the population.

Addressing one of the main complaints of ordinary Cubans, he said the new government will seek to raise Cuban salaries, valued at about $15 to $20 a month. Although Cubans receive heavily subsidized state rations, many food products and most household items are priced out of the reach of most Cubans.

But reforms will take time, he warned, and will be made only within the limits of socialism. Rather than making the mistake of hasty improvisation, he urged caution, saying solving Cuba's problems involve "more variables than those contained in a chess game."

Above all, he said, "I insist on the importance of discipline."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS:

Raul Castro Ruz

Titles: Elected president on Sunday; is still second secretary of the Communist Party. Was named provisional president by brother Fidel Castro in July 2006.

Age: 76; born June 3, 1931.

Education: Attended Roman Catholic schools and studied administration at University of Havana.

Family: Was married to Vilma Espin, who died on June 18. They had four children.

Quote: "I assume this responsibility knowing that as far as the commander in chief is concerned, there is only one. Fidel is Fidel, we all know that well. Fidel is irreplaceable and the people will continue his task after he's no longer physically here, although his ideas will always remain."

Associated Press

[Last modified February 25, 2008, 00:09:00]


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