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Old guard in Cuba keeps reins

Raul Castro is named president, and a party elder fills the No. 2 post. Sweeping reforms now appear unlikely.

February 25, 2008|Miguel Bustillo and Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — Cuba's parliament signaled Sunday that the status quo of a stunted state-run economy and strained relations with the United States will persist for now as it named Raul Castro to replace his ailing brother, Fidel, as president and chose another aging revolutionary as the nation's No. 2 leader.

The selection of Raul Castro, 76, to head the Council of State had been widely predicted, as he stood loyally by his brother's side throughout a 49-year rule. But the appointment of Jose Ramon Machado, 77, as first vice president surprised Cuba analysts who had expected that a younger candidate would be named to bring change to the country's ossified power structure.

Raul Castro's first action as president was to propose, with unanimous endorsement of the parliament, that the 81-year-old Fidel Castro retain an influential role in guiding the country.

The new president said he would consult his elder brother on issues of "special transcendence for the future of the nation, especially those having to do with national defense, foreign policy and economic development."

"I assume this responsibility knowing that as far as the commander in chief is concerned, there is only one. Fidel is Fidel," Raul Castro told the newly sworn National Assembly. "All of us know he is irreplaceable."

The appointment of staunch communists offered slim prospects for improved relations with Washington, where officials through 10 presidencies have insisted that Cuba improve its record on human rights before any mending of political ties could occur.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the leadership change a "significant moment," but pushed Cubans to undertake "an open and comprehensive dialogue about their country's future, free of fear and repression."

"We urge the Cuban government to begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights and creating a clear pathway toward free and fair elections," Rice said in a statement released early in the day.

Cubans' attitudes toward the leadership choices were muted.

In Miami, Cuban exiles viewed the news as confirmation that little will change in their homeland until both Castro brothers are dead.

"We've traded one dictator for another, one murderer for another, and the people of Cuba still won't know what it's like to be free," said Ismael Jamide, 55, who left Cuba in 1992. "This gang of delinquents will not make economic change, are you kidding? They know that if they do, the power will slip from their hands."

Some predicted that life in Cuba would worsen under Raul Castro, saying he lacked the intellect and magnetism of his brother.

"It's the same dog with a different collar," said Yolanda Salvador, 67, who has been in the United States 37 years. "Fidel may be decrepit physically, but until his last breath he will make all the decisions in Cuba."

In Havana, Cuba's most respected dissident, Oswaldo Paya, called the election "tragicomic" and insisted that the changes "were not the choice of the people."

Although sweeping reforms are unlikely, Raul Castro has talked about the need for "structural change" to combat widespread corruption and theft from state enterprises. Cuban economists blame those problems for a dysfunctional economy that leaves most Cubans to get by on less than $20 a month and a meager ration of staples.

But outside analysts contend that excessive state control is what stifles incentive and hampers productivity.

Recent debate about how to boost agricultural output has raised hopes of more autonomy at least in the agrarian sector. Some tinkering with agricultural policy is expected as even the most conservative leaders are concerned about Cuba's dependence on imports for about three-quarters of the island's food needs. Since the U.S. opened the way for the sale of food and medicine to Cuba in 2000, American farmers have become the island's biggest supplier of agricultural products.

The new president made passing reference to the need to decentralize decision-making in the agricultural sector but said specific changes needed would be discussed later. A University of Havana professor who asked not to be named said that decentralization may be slow but that it was certain to come.

Another scientific researcher said Raul Castro was reacting in part to growing restlessness among Cuban youths who "do not know the historical context" of the revolution and are impatient for more freedoms and material goods because of exposure to visiting exiles and tourists.

Cubans eager to open their own small businesses and improve their living standards had been hoping Sunday's parliamentary gathering would usher in more reform-minded figures, such as Vice President Carlos Lage. The 56-year-old physician was credited for guiding the Cuban economy out of the 1990s crisis that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to Moscow's subsidies.

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