By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 25, 2008
HAVANA, Feb. 24 -- Cuba's revolutionary old guard consolidated its hold on power Sunday when the National Assembly bypassed a younger generation of politicians and named Fidel Castro's brother, Raúl, president and a hard-line communist first vice president.
The unanimous decision dealt a blow to Cubans who had hoped Sunday would mark a dramatic change of direction for the island nation ruled for nearly five decades by Fidel Castro, 81, who announced Tuesday that he was stepping down after a long illness.
In his acceptance speech, Raúl Castro, 76, promised to "complete" his brother's work during his five-year term as president of the Council of State, a position considered equivalent to head of state.
Raúl offered little promise of major changes beyond streamlining inefficient government agencies and improving Cuba's dismal agricultural production. He said he would consider ending the country's dual currency system, which lets tourists use convertible pesos that have more buying power than the pesos Cubans use.
"Fidel is irreplaceable," Raúl said in his address, which was broadcast nationwide. "Fidel is with us as he always has been, with a clear mind."
The new first vice president, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 77, fought in the Sierra Maestra with the Castro brothers during the Cuban Revolution. Trained as a doctor, he has held a series of Communist Party and government posts and is known for his strict adherence to communist doctrine. He is generally believed to be one of Raúl Castro's closest confidants.
Yoani Sánchez, a moderate dissident blogger in Havana, said in an interview that the selection of Machado Ventura "is a clear signal that the old guard is still in charge and that there hasn't been a true reorganization." But Sánchez said that at least Raúl Castro "talked about some changes, unlike his brother, who didn't talk about change."
In choosing Machado Ventura, the assembly skipped over Carlos Lage, who had emerged as the second-most-powerful figure in the interim government established 19 months ago when Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded the presidency to his brother. Lage, who was named Sunday as one of five Council of State vice presidents, was one of the architects of reforms that opened the economy to more foreign investment and legalized a few small private businesses.
"I don't want to say that he is not capable -- he's a brilliant man," assembly member Ana Fidelia Quirot Moret said of Lage in an interview after the vote. "But Machado is a man of the revolution. He is a historic figure capable of continuing the Cuban Revolution."
Another lawmaker, Isis María Leyva Betancourt, said that the selection of Machado Ventura -- known as a "historico" because he fought in the revolution -- was evidence that "our history didn't start here and now, it started in 1959" when Fidel Castro took power at the head of a rebel army. But she added that Lage's inclusion in the powerful Council of State's roster of vice presidents gave Cuba "a good mix of historicos and the new generation."
Fidel Castro's tenure spanned the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the fall of the Soviet Union, rhetorical battles with 10 U.S. presidents and a decades-long U.S. trade embargo. The ailing leader, who remains a member of the National Assembly, did not appear Sunday at the drab 1970s convention center that houses Cuba's legislature.
Clouds of cigar smoke scented the convention center's lobby as nearly 600 lawmakers filed into a hallway to vote in white-curtained booths. Raúl Castro, who entered the 28,000-square-foot assembly chamber to sustained applause, waved briefly and smiled before taking a front-row seat. During nearly five decades as defense minister, the younger Castro was almost always seen in military uniform. But on Sunday, as he prepared to formally accede to Cuba's highest civilian post, he opted for a blue suit and gray tie.
"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."