After 49 years of Fidel, Cuba ushers in the era of Raúl
Campaign News | Monday, 18 February 2008
Defence minister wins unanimous assembly vote
Cuba's national assembly unanimously named Raúl Castro as head of state last night, formally ending almost half a century of Fidel Castro's rule.
Watch video comment from Cubans in Havana and Miami: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/25/cuba
The 76-year-old defence minister took power in a choreographed ceremony of party unity which cast his brother in the role of revered, but no longer omnipotent, oracle of the revolution.
As the constitutionally-designated successor, Raúl's appointment was expected but the elevation of an ideological hardliner as his deputy was a surprise. José Ramón Machado, a 77-year-old veteran of Fidel's Sierra
Maestra guerrilla campaign, was promoted ahead of young potential reformers.
In his first speech as leader Raúl, in a suit and tie instead of his usual fatigues, promised to consult Fidel on important decisions of state. "The commander in chief of the Cuban revolution is unique. Fidel is Fidel, as we all know well, he is irreplaceable," he said.
The new president said the Communist party would ensure socialism outlasted Fidel and his generation. "The mandate of this legislature is clear ... to continue strengthening the revolution at a historic moment. This conviction has particular importance when the founding and forging generation of the revolution is disappearing," he said.
The mood in the 614-seat chamber betrayed little sense of drama or history in the making in an effort to project normality and continuity. The streets of Havana were quiet as people absorbed the latest step in Fidel's withdrawal from public life, a transition initiated 19 months ago when he provisionally ceded power to undergo emergency intestinal surgery. Last week the convalescing 81-year-old said he would not accept another term as president.
Raúl, who has headed a caretaker government, was given a standing ovation by the assembly before being confirmed as head of state and government. The assembly was also due to name a 31-member council of state.
The dearth of suspense underscored the authorities' tight control over the island and its 11 million people, many of whom hanker for relief from poverty harsher than that experienced in eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall.
The Bush administration called on Havana to move towards democracy, an implicit acknowledgment that Cuba retained the initiative despite Washington's economic embargo.
"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," Condoleeza Rice, the secretary of state, said in a statement.
It remains unclear to what extent Fidel will retain influence. He is still leader of the Communist party and an assembly member and writes newspaper editorials, though the byline has changed from Commander in Chief to Comrade Fidel.
The mention of his name last night prompted a standing ovation. The assembly, whose members are elected from a list fixed by the authorities, traditionally has been a rubber stamp for the "maximum commandante" who ruled like a colossus since the 1959 revolution.
Under Raúl, who has a collegiate style, the council of state is expected to wield more power. The president, who has long shunned the limelight, is believed to favour a Chinese-type economic liberalisation to improve living standards without loosening political control. He has encouraged criticism of the system, raising expectations that delivering better food, transport and housing rather than rhetoric would characterise his rule.
Under Raúl the military has taken control of much of the economy by managing farms, tourist resorts and other businesses, embedding so-called "Raúlista" senior officers in political power and smoothing the transition.
Yet since taking over the younger Castro has attempted few reforms, possibly because ideological purists in the government have applied the brakes, arguing that support from oil-rich Venezuela would permit a return to core communism.
Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent The Guardian