CAMAGUEY, CUBA — An estimated 100,000 cheering loyalists crammed a plaza here as acting President Raul Castro presided for the first time over ceremonies marking the start of the Cuban Revolution.
In a one-hour speech, Castro acknowledged that the economy has failed to meet the needs of working people and signaled the need for unspecified "structural changes."
"No one country can afford to spend more than what they have," he said during a ceremony peppered with praise for his convalescing older brother, Fidel. "To have more, we have to begin by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency."
Raul Castro's first major policy address since taking power came a year after Fidel Castro's last public appearances, when the longtime Cuban president gave speeches in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Holguin. Five days later, in a statement read on television, Fidel Castro announced that he had to undergo emergency surgery and ceded the presidency, the leadership of the Communist Party and military responsibilities to his younger brother.
"These have truly been very difficult months, although with a diametrically different impact to that expected by our enemies, who were wishing for chaos to take hold and for Cuban socialism to collapse," he said, referring to U.S. predictions.
Raul Castro also reiterated his willingness to open discussions with the U.S., saying that if the next U.S. administration after the 2008 election "desists from their arrogance and decides to converse in a civilized manner, it would be a welcome change."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded: "The only real dialogue that's needed is with the Cuban people."
Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia, said Raul Castro appeared to set the stage for serious structural changes in a centralized economy molded largely by his brother.
"He's creating the expectation that they are looking at some larger policy changes," Peters said. "It's a way to tell the public they recognize a lot of people have trouble making ends meet."
Cuba watchers and some dissidents question whether Raul Castro will be able to implement even modest economic reforms as long as his brother is alive. Fidel Castro's behind-the-scenes presence would probably deter him, they said.