Image: Raul Castro
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Cuba's President Raul Castro sits next to Fidel Castro's empty chair during a session of the National Assembly of Popular Power, Cuban Legislature, in Havana, Saturday, Aug. 1.
updated 8/1/2009 11:15:30 PM ET 2009-08-02T03:15:30

Raul Castro announced Saturday that Cuba will cut spending on education and health care, potentially weakening the building blocks of its communist system in a bid to revive a floundering economy.

The former defense minister who took over the presidency last year called state spending "simply unsustainable" and said the cash-strapped government would reorganize rural schools and scrutinize its free health care system in search of ways to save money.

But he vowed that the island will not see fundamental change even after he and his older brother and predecessor Fidel Castro are gone.

"I wasn't elected president to return capitalism to Cuba," Castro said, "or to surrender the revolution" — the armed uprising that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista a half-century ago.

"I was elected to defend, build and perfect socialism, not destroy it," he said to a standing ovation from lawmakers in Parliament.

He framed those remarks as a response to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said Washington wants to see economic and social reforms in Cuba before doing more to improve bilateral relations.

Castro also reiterated his willingness to negotiate improved relations with the United States and acknowledged a "decline in the aggressiveness and anti-Cuban rhetoric" during the Obama administration.

He said he was ready to talk about "everything here, but also everything there," referencing Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Castro made an unusual mention of the mortality of his ailing, 82-year-old brother — something top officials almost never do in public — scoffing at those who think Cuba's political system will crumble after "the death of Fidel and all of us."

"If that's how they think they are doomed to failure," Castro said.

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