Monday, February 25, 2008

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

The vote took place five days after Fidel said he was retiring, capping a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him.

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

In a sign that any change will be minor, Raul, 76, proposed he consult the ailing, 81-year-old Fidel on all major decisions of state, and parliament approved the proposal.

An old-guard revolutionary leader, Jose Ramon Machado, was named No. 2 — the slot Raul previously held. The 77-year-old fought alongside the Castro brothers in the Sierra Maestra during the late 1950s.

In his first speech as president, Raul suggested the Communist Party as a whole should take over the role long held by Fidel, 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 … because the founding and forging generation of the revolution is disappearing,” Raul added.

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

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that 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.”

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 Fidel’s 49 years as head of the communist state in America’s back yard. 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 underwent emergency intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers to Raul.

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

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

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

Cabinet Secretary Carlos Lage, whom many expected to be promoted to the first vice-president slot, retained his position as one of five other vice presidents on the Council of State.

The four other vice presidents are Juan Almeida Bosque, 80, a historic revolutionary leader; Interior Minister Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 68; Esteban Lazo Hernandez, 63, a longtime Communist Party leader; and Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 72, head of the military’s economics activities, whom Raul Castro immediately promoted to be his replacement as defense minister.

The council secretary remains Jose M. Miyar Barrueco, 75, a physician and revolutionary leader, and longtime aide to Fidel Castro and the Council of State.

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