- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba’s parliament named Raul Castro president today, ending nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but leaving the island’s communist system unshaken.

In a surprise move, officials bypassed younger candidates to name a 77-year-old revolutionary leader, Jose Ramon Machado, to Cuba’s No. 2 spot — apparently assuring the old guard that no significant political changes will be made soon.

Raul also proposed he would consult with the ailing, 81-year-old Fidel on all major decisions of state, and parliament approved the proposal.

Today’s vote came five days after Fidel said he was retiring, capping a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him.

Though the succession was not likely to bring a major shift in the communist government policies that have put Cuba at odds with the United States, many Cubans were hoping it would open the door to modest economic reforms that might improve their daily lives.

In his first speech as president, Raul Castro suggested that the Communist Party as a whole would take over the role long held by Fidel Castro, who formally remains its leader.

The new president said the nation’s sole legal party “is the directing and superior force of society and the state.”

“This conviction has particular importance when because the founding and forging generation of the revolution is disappearing,” Raul Castro added.

The U.S. has said the change from one Castro to another would not be significant, calling it a “transfer of authority and power from dictator to dictator light.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today Cubans have a right “to choose their leaders in democratic elections” and urged the government “to begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights, and creating a clear pathway towards free and fair elections.”

Her statement, issued shortly before parliament met, called the developments a “significant moment in Cuba’s history.”

Cuba’s parliament chose a new 31-member ruling body known as the Council of State to lead the country. The council’s president serves as the head of state and government.

The vote ended Castro’s 49 years as head of the communist state in America’s backyard. He retains his post as a lawmaker and as head of the Communist Party. But his power in government has eroded since July 31, 2006, when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers to Raul.

The younger Castro has headed Cuba’s caretaker government in the 19 months since then, and Fidel Castro has not appeared in public.

In his final essay as president, Castro wrote that preparations for the parliament meeting “left me exhausted,” and he said he did not regret his decision to step down.

“I slept better than ever,” he wrote in the commentary published on Friday. “My conscience was clear and I promised myself a vacation.”

In Old Havana, Maria Martinez, a 67-year-old retiree, watched the announcement on a Chinese-made television in her dark living room.

“He’s a trustworthy man,” she said. “He won’t make mistakes.”

“All we really want is peace and tranquility,” she added.

Her 33-year-old neighbor, Raul Rodriguez, let out a long sigh and nodded as the announcement of Raul Castro’s election was made.

“He’s hard, he’s tough,” said Rodriguez, who wore an NYPD baseball cap sent by a relative in the U.S.

Cabinet secretary Carlos Lage, who many had expected would move up into the first vice president slot, maintained his spot as one of five other vice presidents on the Council of State.

The other four vice presidents included Juan Almeida Bosque, 80, a historic revolutionary leader; Interior Minister Abeldardo Colomoe Ibarra, 68; Esteban Lazo Hernandez, 63, a longtime Communist Party leader, and Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 71, who was Raul Castro’s No. 2 at the Defense Ministry.

The council secretary remained Dr. Jose M. Miyar Barrueco, 75, physician and historic revolutionary leader, and longtime aide to Fidel Castro and Council of State.

Fidel was among the 614 members of parliament elected on Jan. 20 but his seat was empty at today’s gathering. As the names of the new National Assembly’s members were read aloud, mention of the absent Castro drew a standing ovation. Parliament gave another standing ovation to Raul. The session closed with shouts of “Viva Fidel!”

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez reaffirmed his economic and political support of Cuba when he took a telephone call from Raul Castro after the session. Chavez also sent a message to his ally Fidel, whom he visited numerous times during his illness.

“Fidel, comrade,” Chavez said, “I send you a hug. You continue to be El Comandante.”

Earlier today, Chavez scoffed at the idea of a transition in Cuba, saying “the transition occurred 49 years ago,” from U.S.-dominated capitalism to socialism.

Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Havana and Anne-Marie Garcia in Santiago, Cuba, contributed to this report.


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