Havana: Raul Castro prepares Tuesday for his first diplomatic encounter as president of a post-Fidel Cuba, at a planned meeting with the number two official from the Vatican.
A day after the National Assembly selected Raul Castro to succeed his older brother Fidel as head of state, the new president was to hold his first meeting with a foreign dignitary, as Cubans and the rest of the world weighed the meaning of his formal ascent to power.
Vatican secretary of state Tarciscio Bertone said before his scheduled meeting with Raul Castro Tuesday that he expected “clarity” and “sincerity” in his talks with the new leader.
“I have come here at a special, extraordinary moment,” Bertone told a joint news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.
Cuban dissidents have called on Bertone to urge the new president to release the communist regime’s political prisoners.
Bertone hailed as “positive” the recent freeing of certain prisoners, but said he had not called for amnesties.
Shortly after he was named president to follow his ailing brother, Raul Castro announced the appointment of regime veteran Jose Ramon Machado, 77, for Cuba’s number-two spot, dashing hopes he might promptly elevate a younger generation of leaders such as Carlos Lage, one of the country’s vice presidents.
With Machado in his inner circle, “Raul Castro is signaling that the old guard is still on top,” said Dan Erikson, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue.
Raul Castro, known as a pragmatist with solid backing from the powerful military, promised to stay faithful to the Cuban revolution and to consult his 81-year-old brother on major issues. And he said he would remain vigilant in the face of Cuba’s powerful northern neighbor the United States.
“Fidel is irreplaceable; the people will continue his work when he is no longer with us physically, though his ideas always will be here,” Raul Castro, who stood in for his brother since he fell ill 19 months ago, told lawmakers in his acceptance speech.
The US administration said on Monday it would maintain its decades-long embargo on Cuba and said there was no realistic hope of genuine reform given the lingering presence of hardline communist figures.
“The only thing that changed yesterday was a new leader emerged, but there is no indication that the Cuban people are going to be allowed to pursue a free and prosperous future,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
Some of the 27 EU member states, led by Spain which normalized its relations with Havana last year, favor definitively dropping sanctions which were suspended in 2005.
The European Union also said it was willing to engage in a “constructive political dialogue” with Raul Castro.
Vietnam, loyal ally of communist Cuba, Monday congratulated Raul Castro on becoming the island’s president, calling it a sign of Cuba’s determination toward the “revolutionary cause.”
Vietnam and Cuba are among only five communist countries in the world along with China, North Korea and Laos.
During his 19 months as interim president, Raul Castro encouraged Cubans to voice their concerns and made minor adjustments to the country’s troubled state-run economy. In his acceptance speech, he suggested more economic reforms were in the offing but gave no details.
Cubans voiced hopes the new president, who spent years in his brother’s charismatic shadow as Cuba’s number two and defense minister, would usher in long-sought economic reforms to improve their daily lives.
“This is the best that could have happened to Cuba,” Carlos Muguercia, a 78-year-old craftsman said. “Raul already knows the situation. He knows how to solve problems, in any case the most serious ones.”
But dissidents said the power transfer meant a continuation of “hardline” repressive rule. Osvaldo Paya said the succession “by itself does not bring any of the changes that the people want and need: freedom, the full exercise of their rights.”