Sydney Morning Herald: Raul wants more debate in Cuba

Campaign News | Thursday, 21 December 2006

Speech to students highlights importance of disagreement in finding solutions

Cuba's interim leader Raul Castro, signaling a different style of government from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, on Wednesday called for greater debate on public policies in the communist-run country.

"Sometimes people fear the word disagree, but I say the more debate and the more disagreement you have, the better the decisions will be," he told students in Havana.

Raul Castro said he was delegating more responsibilities and making fewer speeches than his famously verbose brother, and running the country of 11 million in a more collegial way.

He did not mention the health of his 80-year-old brother who has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery forced him to relinquish power on July 31 for the first time since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

The bearded leader's absence has fueled uncertainty about the future of the Western hemisphere's only communist state, amid speculation that he may be close to death.

His designated successor Raul Castro, 75, said Cuba's one-party political system, or the "Revolution" as its backers call it, will continue with or without his brother.

"Fidel is irreplaceable, unless we all replace him together," he said, repeating a statement he made in June that Fidel Castro's only possible heir is Cuba's Communist Party.

"Fidel is irreplaceable and I don't intend to imitate him. Those who imitate fail," Raul said in the short speech to a conference of Cuba's Federation of University Students.

The younger Castro had the 800 delegates in stitches with humorous stories about his childhood, including one about getting thrown off a horse the day he tried to copy a peasant and ride bareback.

Looking relaxed even though he was dressed in his army uniform, Raul said Cuba was at an "historic" moment.

"I say historic because, like it or not, we are finishing the fulfillment of our duty and we have to give way to new generations," he said.

Cuba watchers believe Raul Castro does not have the ambition to run Cuba indefinitely and would govern for only a few years before handing over to a younger successor.

Since Raul took over from his brother in July, Cuban newspapers have published rare stories exposing theft and corruption in Cuba's socialist society. He is said to favour relaxing state controls over the economy.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque gave the final address to the student meeting, filling a role traditionally played by Fidel Castro.

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