February 24, 2008
Miami Herald- Pablo Bachelet, Ani Martinez and Frances Robles
Raúl Castro was elected as Cuba's new president Sunday, capping the island's first change of leadership in 50 years with a perfectly managed and carefully orchestrated succession of power that caused little stir in Havana or Miami.
The vote by Cuba's 614-member National Assembly making the 76-year-old defense minister president of the Council of State came five days after longtime leader Fidel Castro acknowledged that he was not healthy enough for the job.
Raúl Castro's first move as president was to introduce a measure allowing his brother to rule on all major decisions in the future. The National Assembly unanimously agreed.
In his inaugural speech, Raúl Castro paid homage to his brother's rule, saying he could never be replaced -- 'Fidel is Fidel,' he said -- and repeated his previous argument that the Communist Party remains Cuba's leading force.
``He can never be replaced.'
In a session filled with pomp and accolades for an iconic leader still so ill he cast an absentee ballot, the 597 Assembly members present also selected other members of the Council of State -- including old guard hardliner José Ramón Machado Ventura as the Council's No. 2.
The first ballot was cast by Raúl Castro, dressed not in his usual military attire, but a dark business suit.
Former political prisoner Ricardo Bofill, now living in Miami, scoffed at Sunday's vote.
'Not one person on the Assembly was ever elected democratically,' Bofill said. ``What is going on today is a formal exercise without content or validity.'
'Essentially Fidel Castro wanted to run a country like a Cuban military camp. For that reason his brother always was and has been his right hand by enforcing the military,' he added.
National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón was also elected to a third term as the head of the Cuban legislative body, ending speculation that he would be pushed aside in favor of a younger legislator more inclined toward reforms. Alarcón, 70, has presided over the assembly since 1993.
Opening the session, Justice Minister María Esther Reus González described how two deputies visited Fidel at an undisclosed location ``to validate his certificate of election as a deputy, accept his oath and carry back, in a sealed envelope, the ballots that allow him to exercise his right to vote.'
Reus then asked the assembled deputies if they agreed with that procedure. The response was unanimous. The messengers were identified as José Miguel Miyar Barruecos, Fidel's long-time personal aide and secretary of the Council of State, and Carlos Manuel Valenciaga Díaz, Fidel's chief of staff.
'This will not resolve anything for Cuba,' said Alejandro Sardiñas, a former dissident who moved to South Florida last week. ``What Cuba needs is a change in system, not change of having one man do the same job another man was doing. That's why I'm here, in exile, when I would rather be in my Cuba.'
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Cuba to take steps toward free elections.
'At this significant moment in Cuba's history, we reaffirm our belief that the Cuban people have an inalienable right to participate in an open and comprehensive dialogue about their country's future, free of fear and repression, and to choose their leaders in democratic elections,' she said in a statement. ``We support their efforts to obtain a voice in their national destiny, and their desire to gain access to the resources and opportunities necessary to become masters of their own lives, enhance the well-being of their families, and achieve their God-given potential.
``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.'
Raúl Castro faces tremendous obstacles. The country's economy is in shambles and its 11.2 million people are deeply frustrated over high prices and low salaries. They are eager for structural changes that would loosen restrictions on things like travel, hotel stays and earning extra money.
Raúl Castro is considered a potential economic reformer more inclined to institute a communist model similar to China's with economic freedoms but tight political controls.
A former rebel alongside his brother, he is the world's longest serving defense minister. He first took office on a temporary basis July 2006, when Fidel first got sick.
He has widely been credited with presiding over a smooth transition lacking in civil disruptions. Most observers believe he's been held back by the presence of Fidel, who has regualrly opposed economic reforms.
Fidel, 81, held on to his post as a rank-and-file National Assembly deputy and as first secretary of the Communist Party. In a letter to Cuban newspapers this week, he said he hoped to continue as a 'soldier' in the ``battle of ideas.'
'We are not expecting any dramatic changes,' said Nestor, one of the three priests who presided over mass in Havana's Cathedral Sunday. ``There may be some changes of secondary importance, but no essential changes.'
These changes, he said, could come in the form of allowing Cubans to enter hotels now restricted to tourists or buy a home. But even as he elaborated, he didn't appear to be confident that the new regime would do so.
He wasn't alone. Yolanda, 67, put it more bluntly: 'As long as he is alive, nothing will change,' she whispered. ``Everything will remain the same -- for now.'
But she added that change could bring good or ill bad -- a widespread sentiment in Cuba. Afro-Cubans, who believe the revolution greatly benefitted them, especially fear that any any changes could rebound against them.
'More than anyone else, this revolution has given opportunities to people of color,' Yolanda said. ``There has to be change for the better, anything else, we won't accept.'
Many Cubans worry the eventual loss of revolutionary accomplishments such as free health care and education.
'I've given birth to two children, and this revolution has educated them,' said Genoveva, 54. ``Everyone here has the chance to study. Anyone who doesn't, it is because they do not want to.'
Still, even Genoveva said she she understands the complexity of tackling the country's economic woes.
'I hope the economic situation improves, gets better,' she said. ``Things are very expensive. They give you the ration book, but then there are things that you need that aren't available, or it's not enough.'
For Cubans in Miami, it was an anti-climatic ending to an era they hoped would end differently. Fidel Castro remains alive, and his brother is assuming power.
'I wish a day like today had more weight, but the sad truth is that it doesn't mean much,' said Nick Gutiérrez, president of the Bridge of Young Cuban Professionals in Miami. ``The only people voting are people offering the same type of government. No freedom. No choices. The ones wanting to make changes are on the street or in jail.'
The Miami Herald has withheld the name of its reporter in Havana and the surnames of Cubans interviewed, because the journalist lacked the media visa required by the Cuban government. Bachelet reported from Washington, D.C. and Martinez and Robles in Miami. Additional reporting was provided by translator Renato Pérez. The story was written by Robles.