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Party Elders Triumph In Cuba
"In my opinion, Raúl is the only option," Luis Felipe Simon Cabreza, an assembly member from the eastern city of Holguin, said in an interview before voting. "He will continue the Cuban revolution. The future of our country, of our revolution, is assured."
At 10 a.m., María Esther Reus González, Cuba's justice minister, began a roll call of assembly members by calling out "Fidel Castro Ruz," the former leader's full name. Lawmakers, including army officers with medals on their chests and rural representatives in white guayabera shirts, rose and clapped rhythmically.
Fidel Castro remains the head of the Communist Party, and many here still consider him the country's true leader. Before the vote, Reus González held aloft a sealed envelope that she said contained Fidel's vote for president. She reminded assembly members that "El Comandante" had urged them to make a unanimous selection.
In a statement before the vote Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Cuba to "begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights and creating a clear pathway towards free and fair elections."
There was little doubt that Raúl Castro, Fidel's handpicked successor, would be named president by a National Assembly that critics say has served only to rubber-stamp the brothers' decisions. Assembly members interviewed during breaks said they were free to vote for whomever they pleased, but some said Raúl was the only candidate on the ballot.
"This is a historic day," Ana Ramona Martin, 39, a freshman lawmaker from the city of Sancti Spiritus, said in an interview. "We are seeing evidence of our democracy today. I'm a simple campesina, and look what I am getting to do."
Raúl Castro has long favored opening Cuba's economy to more foreign investment, and some observers said he was likely to increase opportunities for Cubans to become independent businesspeople rather than work for the state. Currently, 100,000 to 150,000 people have licenses to run private businesses, less than 3 percent of the working-age population in this country of 11.4 million.
Ra¿l has also offered to initiate dialogue with the United States, which, along with international human rights groups, accuses the Castro regime of political repression and the jailing of dissidents. Assembly member Nieves López, who was 9 when Fidel took power, said in an interview that "Cuba does not have a single political prisoner."
The talk outside the legislative chamber Sunday was not about change -- it was about preserving Fidel Castro's policies.
"Our political project must stay the same," López said. "Our system is well-defined, and it will not change."