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Power shifts to Castro's brother

MIAMI — MIAMI -- Cuba's parliament signaled yesterday 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.

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Raul Castro's first action as president was to propose, with the 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."

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"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 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 can occur.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the leadership change a "significant moment" but urged 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.

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, noting that he lacks the intellect and magnetism of his brother.

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"It's the same dog with a different collar," said Yolanda Salvador, 67, who has been in the United States for 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 survive on less than $20 a month and a meager ration of staples.

Outside analysts say excessive state control stifles incentive and hampers Cuban productivity.

Recent debate about how to boost agricultural output has raised hopes for greater autonomy, at least in the agrarian sector. Some tinkering with agricultural policy is expected, as even the most conservative leaders are concerned about the island's dependence on imports for about three-quarters of the island's food needs. Since the United States cleared the way for the sale of food and medicine to Cuba in 2000, U.S. 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 would be discussed later. A University of Havana professor who asked not to be identified said that decentralization might be slow but that it is coming.

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

Machado, a physician who fought with Fidel Castro's guerrillas and treated their wounded, has served in the Communist Party hierarchy for decades and is known to be a close ally of Raul Castro's. He was responsible in recent years for infusing revolutionary principles into education.

Fidel Castro had announced Tuesday that he would not accept another five-year term as president. He had temporarily ceded power to his brother after falling ill with an intestinal disorder in July 2006 and undergoing surgeries. He said in his resignation letter that he is not up to the physical demands of the leadership.

The elder Castro was elected to the assembly, but failed to show up at its inaugural gathering. Despite his absence, he cast his votes for the new hierarchy. Two fellow members of parliament visited him at an undisclosed location early in the day to collect his ballots, the assembly was told.

Fidel Castro has long condemned all capitalist influences as destructive of the egalitarian nature of Cuban society. Raul Castro, though, has overseen some of the more successful joint-venture enterprises with foreigners in such economic sectors as tourism and mining, which have brought in billions of dollars in hard-currency revenue.

Miguel Bustillo and Carol J. Williams write for the Los Angeles Times.


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