HAVANA — Cuba's parliament named Raul Castro president on Sunday, ending nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but leaving the island's communist system unshaken.
In a surprise move, officials bypassed younger candidates to name a 77-year-old revolutionary leader, Jose Ramon Machado, to Cuba's No. 2 spot — apparently reassuring the old guard that no significant political changes will be made soon.
The retirement of the ailing 81-year-old president caps a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him, and Raul Castro stressed that his brother remains "commander in chief" even if he is not president.
He proposed to consult with Fidel on all major decisions of state — a motion approved by acclamation.
Machado, who fought alongside the Castro brothers in the Sierra Maestra during the late 1950s, is a key Communist Party ideologue. New members on the governing Council of State also include two top generals close to Raul and another aging revolutionary commander.
Cuba's young guard apparently will have to wait a little longer. Cabinet secretary Carlos Lage, 56, who is associated with the modest economic reforms of the 1990s, had been among the most visible Cuban officials since Fidel Castro fell ill and was considered a strong candidate to replace Raul as first vice president.
Stronger role for Communist Party?
In his first speech as president, Raul Castro suggested that the Communist Party as a whole would take over the role long held by Fidel Castro, who formally remains its leader.
"The Communist Party guarantees the unity of the Cuban nation," he said, calling it "the worthy heir of the confidence that the people have deposited in their leader," Fidel.
The new president said the nation's sole legal party "is the directing and superior force of society and the state."
"This conviction has particular importance when the founding and forging generation of the revolution is disappearing," Raul Castro added.
Revaluation of peso possible
While the message of no major political change was clear, Raul Castro indicated at least one economic change is being contemplated: revaluation of the Cuban peso, the national currency.
Cubans complain that government salaries averaging a little more than $19 a month do not cover basic necessities — something Raul Castro acknowledged in a major speech last year.
But he said Sunday that any change would have to be gradual to "prevent traumatic and incongruent effects."
Fidel Castro's seat in the National Assembly was empty, but as the new National Assembly's 614 members were read aloud, mention of the absent Castro drew a standing ovation.
The succession was likely to bring few major policy shifts by the communist government, but many Cubans have expressed hope it would open the door to modest economic openings and an improvement in their daily lives.
Chavez reaffirms support
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reaffirmed his economic and political support of Cuba when he took a telephone call from Raul Castro after the session. Chavez also sent a message to his ally Fidel, whom he visited numerous times during his illness.
"Fidel, comrade," Chavez said, "I send you a hug. You continue to be El Comandante."
With Sunday's vote, Castro's 49 years as head of a communist state in America's backyard came to an end. He retains his post as a lawmaker and is head of Cuba's Communist Party, but his power in the government has eroded since July 31, 2006, when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers.
The younger Castro has headed Cuba's caretaker government in the 19 months since then, and Fidel Castro has not appeared in public.
"He's a trustworthy man," Maria Martinez, a 67-year-old retiree who watched the announcement on the Chinese-made television in her dark living room in Old Havana. "He won't make mistakes."
"All we really want is peace and tranquility," she added.
Her 33-year-old neighbor, Raul Rodriguez, let out a long sigh and nodded as the announcement of Raul Castro's election was made.
"He's hard, he's tough," said Rodriguez, who wore an NYPD baseball cap sent by a relative in the U.S.
The fierce percussion of reggaeton poured from nearby homes while government street sweepers in blue smocks tidied the historic district's cobblestone streets of Old Havana without looking up as parliament session was carried live on state television.
Older men picked as vice presidents
The National Assembly, whose members were elected to five-year terms on Jan. 20, chose a new 31-member Council of State and its president, who serves as the country's head of state and government. The session closed with shouts of "Viva Fidel!"
Machado and Lage were joined by four other vice presidents: Juan Almeida Bosque, 80, a historic revolutionary leader; Interior Minister Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 68; Esteban Lazo Hernandez, 63, a longtime Communist Party leader, and Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 71, Raul Castro's No. 2 at the Defense Ministry.
The council secretary remained Dr. Jose M. Miyar Barrueco, 75, physician and historic revolutionary leader, and longtime aide to Fidel Castro.
Fidel Castro has held the position since the current government structure was created in 1976. For 18 years before that, he was prime minister — a post that no longer exists.
In a first round of voting Sunday, Ricardo Alarcon was re-elected as president of the National Assembly, effectively removing him as a dark horse candidate for the presidency.
‘Significant moment,’ Rice says
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a statement shortly before parliament met, calling the developments a "significant moment in Cuba's history," but saying Cubans have a right "to choose their leaders in democratic elections."
She also urged the Cuban government to "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."
Earlier Sunday, Chavez scoffed at the idea of a transition in Cuba, saying "the transition occurred 49 years ago," from U.S.-dominated capitalism to socialism.
"Things will remain calm, our course is clear," said a policeman who stood outside a cafe in Old Havana, watching a television carrying Raul Castro's first speech as president.
But two teenage men drinking beer on the doorstep of a bar near the Port of Havana turned their backs on the speech.
"At least we won't be frozen now, waiting, like we were since the thing with Fidel," said one. His friend was less hopeful, saying "This means nothing for us. It's just politics."
A man who gave his name as Isidro called the parliament's vote "like an insurrection" as he hefted a wide metal tray of homemade guava and coconut pies through the streets near Havana's train station.
"This country it's like jail," said the 51-year-old, who like many Cubans declined to give his last name to a foreign journalist when criticizing the government. "They close the doors and say 'the president is Peter or the president is Paul' and everyone responds "Good, it's Peter or Paul.' There's no openness."
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