Havana: Cuba’s parliament Sunday elected Raul Castro the new president after nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel, in a historic milestone which seems set to keep the Caribbean island on the communist path.
“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, 76, told lawmakers in his acceptance speech.
“I accept the responsibility I have been given with the conviction I have repeated often: there is only one Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution: Fidel is Fidel and we all know it well.”
Fidel Castro, 81, who led Cuba’s revolution, had temporarily handed his younger brother the reins of power in July 2006 when he was hospitalized for intestinal surgery.
But Fidel has not been seen in public since, and on Tuesday he made his bombshell announcement that for health reasons he was standing down as president of the country he had led since 1959.
Shortly after being named president, Raul Castro on Sunday named General Julio Casas Regueiro to replace him as head of the country’s armed forces.
Casas Regueiro, 72, was also elected to Cuba’s executive council. The newly-sworn president was full of praise for his successor as Cuba’s top military officer.
“I have always had criticism for generals in our armed forces, but in 50 years I don’t recall having ever criticizing General Julio Casas Regueiro,” Raul Castro told lawmakers.
Meanwhile, in the first US reaction to Raul Castro’s appointment as president by the national assembly, the top US diplomat for Latin America Tom Shannon said Washington saw some hope for change.
“There is a possibility and potential for change in Cuba, but those changes will have to be born inside Cuba,” Shannon said, adding that the historical changes taking place in Cuba were very “significant.”
In a sign that change may take some time though, Raul Castro said he would consult with his brother on major issues. And he vowed to be on guard against Cuba’s powerful northern neighbor the United States.
“We have taken note of the offensive and openly meddling declarations by the Empire (as Cuba refers to Washington) and some of its closest allies,” he said.
In defiance of US-led calls for democratic change, Fidel Castro this week ruled out any betrayal of the Cuban revolution ahead of Sunday’s vote.
The first to congratulate Raul Castro on becoming president was long-time Cuba ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who denied speculation that his relations with the new leader were more distant than with Fidel.
“Nothing is going to change, we are going to continue to be united, only in unity can we progress to further victory,” Chavez said.
The 614-member assembly on Sunday also chose the country’s first vice president, five other vice presidents, a party secretary and the 23 members of the Council of State.
And in a sign the older generation remained in control, Jose Ramon Machado, another “old guard” Cuban leader, was selected for Cuba’s number-two spot.
Machado, 77, a former health minister, is a founder of the Communist Party and has been chief of party organization since 1990.
Meanwhile, Carlos Lage, 56, a rising younger-generation leader seen as having a longshot chance at the presidency, retains his post as one of several vice presidents.
With Machado behind him “Raul Castro is signaling that the old guard is still on top,” said Dan Erikson, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue.
But Brian Latell, a senior research associate of Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said changes could be on the way. “Most are dismissing this as an insignificant change, but I think they are underestimating Raul.”
“Raul is considering making changes that Fidel never would have done.”
After years in Fidel’s charismatic shadow as Cuba’s number two and defense minister, Raul Castro faces massive challenges, including preparing the transition to a newer generation in power and reforming the economy.
With half of Cuba’s farm land idle, monthly salaries averaging $15, national transportation near collapse, and housing and food in short supply, the outlook is bleak.
In the 19 months since he took over as temporary leader, Raul Castro has made some minor adjustments in the economy, but has promised bigger changes.
Raul Castro said in his acceptance speech he would begin eliminating some economic restrictions in coming weeks, but he did not offer details.
He has made it clear however that everything will take place “within socialism” and that solutions to the country’s problems will come “little by little.”