Castros continue family reign in Cuba

HAVANA (AP) – Raul Castro, Cuba’s first new president in nearly half a century, crushed hopes that a new generation would shape the country’s future by promising to defer to his ailing brother Fidel and the Communist Party’s old guard on major matters.

Shunning younger candidates, the island’s parliament tapped 77-year-old revolutionary leader José Ramon Machado for the government’s No. 2 spot, meaning Raul Castro’s constitutional successor is even older than he is, by a year.

The retirement of 81-year-old Fidel Castro capped a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him. But despite finally emerging from his brother’s shadow, Raul made it clear that Fidel will continue to play a key role in running Cuba.

“Fidel is Fidel, we all know it very well,” the younger Castro told parliament after lawmakers unanimously approved the succession with a show of hands. “Fidel is irreplaceable and the people will continue his work when he is no longer physically with us.”

He suggested that no quick or major economic or political overhauls are in Cuba’s future, and that the Communist Party collectively would take over the role long held by his brother, who still has the important position of party head.

Fidel’s 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.

The parliament vote ended the elder Castro’s 49 years as ruler of the communist state in America’s backyard, but kept many of the oldest leaders in key positions. It also represented a triumph for a carefully managed campaign to smoothly transfer power from Fidel, even as the United States lobbied for a quick “transition to democracy.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized the Castros’ succession, saying “Cubans should have a right to choose their leaders in democratic elections.”

She also urged the Cuban government to “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.”

Though the succession was not likely to bring a major shift in the communist policies that have put Cuba at odds with the United States, many Cubans had hoped it would open the door to modest economic reforms that might improve their daily lives. Many had also hoped younger leaders would assume more important roles.

On Sunday, some Cubans appeared dejected.

“I guess nothing’s going to change then,” Yuniel, a 22-year-old waiter in a restaurant near Havana’s Central Park, said. Like many Cubans, he declined to give his last name when criticizing the government. “There’s no reason people should hope for anything.”

Marleen Rodriguez, a 25-year-old store clerk in the central city of Santa Clara, said she had hoped Cuba’s 42-year-old foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, would be chosen president.

“Fidel talked about young people, and then they choose Raul,” she said.

But others said they had gotten used to Raul as head of state, and the country has been calm with him at the helm.

“I’m very content,” Luis Cuevas, a 43-year-old locksmith in the central city of Ciego de Avila, said of Raul’s presidency. “This is what was expected.”

Raul Castro had called for debate on how to shape Cuba’s economic future and even endorsed unspecified “structural changes” to the communist system. But he said Sunday that anyone hoping for radical change “overlooked the fact that it was debate and criticism within socialism.”

He indicated that at least one change is being contemplated: the re-valuation of the Cuban peso, the currency most people use to pay for government services and the small amount charged for their monthly food ration. But he also noted that the government spends too much money maintaining the ration program, saying that it was “irrational and unsustainable.”

The overwhelming majority of Cubans work for the state, and many complain that the government pays them in Cuban pesos but sells goods in government-run grocery and retail stores in Cuban Convertible Pesos – largely available only to tourists and foreigners, and worth 24 times more.

Reinaldo Garcia, a 49-year-old mechanic, said he could live without a ration card if the regular peso gets stronger.

“If there were only one currency instead of two, Cuban money would be strong enough and the ration card wouldn’t matter,” Garcia said.

The new No. 2, Machado, fought alongside the Castro brothers in Cuba’s eastern mountains in the late 1950s.

New members on the governing Council of State also include two top generals close to Raul and another aging revolutionary commander. The head of the military’s economics ministry will replace Raul Castro as defense minister.

Cuba’s young leaders will apparently have to wait a little longer.

Cabinet secretary Carlos Lage, 56, who is associated with the modest economic reforms of the 1990s, had been among the most visible Cuban officials since Fidel Castro fell ill. He will continue as a regular vice president

Raul’s rise caused little sensation Sunday on the sweaty streets of Havana, where children continued to play baseball with improvised bats and gloves. During his speech, military reservists in olive-green uniforms were stationed on major street corners, but many were later recalled.

“The people didn’t elect anyone,” said Alejandro, a 33-year-old who was drinking rum Sunday night with friends near the capital’s seaside Malecon boulevard.

“There is no democracy, no human rights,” he said. “And with that old guy (Raul), there won’t be any in the future.”