(AFP) – Feb 24, 2008
HAVANA (AFP) — Cuba marked a historic milestone in its revolution Sunday as Raul Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel, defying the United States with pledges not to abandon 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."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier urged Cuba to move toward "peaceful, democratic change."
"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 towards free and fair elections," Rice said in a statement in Washington.
But Raul Castro vowed to be on guard against its powerful northern neighbor the United States, saying "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."
Ailing Fidel Castro, 81, who announced on Tuesday he was stepping aside after ruling for almost 50 years, was not present as the National Assembly held its landmark session to select a new leader.
But newly reelected speaker Ricardo Alarcon announced Sunday to the assembly that Raul -- the only candidate to be put forward -- had been named the new president.
Raul Castro then asked lawmakers for permission to consult with his legendary bearded older brother, on "matters of great importance," and lawmakers gave him a swift green light.
Also 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 historic vote.
In his Tuesday announcement, the frail communist icon quashed speculation that he would retake the reins of power, which he "temporarily" ceded to defense chief Raul Castro on July 31, 2006, shortly after undergoing surgery.
The 614-member assembly on Sunday was also choosing the country's Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, first vice president, five other vice presidents, a party secretary and the 23 members of the Council of State.
Jose Ramon Machado, another "old guard" Cuban leader, was selected for Cuba's number-two spot, lawmakers said.
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," Dan Erikson, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, said in Washington.
"Machado Ventura is a longtime insider and party crony (so) Cuba still is not in the process of a major generational transition," Erikson added..
After years in Fidel's charismatic shadow as Cuba's number two and defense minister, Raul Castro faces massive challenges, including dismantling a monolithic leadership; preparing the transition to a newer generation in power; reforming the economy; and resolving domestic problems.
With half of Cuba's farmland idle, monthly salaries averaging 15 US dollars, national transportation near collapse; and housing and food in short supply the outlook is not good.
Most analysts predict Cuba's upcoming changes will be largely economic.
In the 19 months since he took over as temporary leader, Raul Castro has made some timid adjustments in the economy but has promised bigger changes.
Raul Castro mentioned in his acceptance speech that he would begin eliminating some simple 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."
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