HAVANA, Cuba, February 25, 2008 -
Raul Castro has officially taken over the reigns of power in Cuba, promising gradual economic reforms and a possible revaluation of the island's currency.
But the 76-year-old who was elected by the 614-member National Assembly on Sunday as the new president, has signalled his intention to stay on the communist course his brother, Fidel Castro took during his near half-century rule of the country - the longest term for any of the world's heads of state.
In addition to keeping the Communist Party's old guard in place, the new president indicated that he would consult with the ailing former leader on all major decisions.
"Fidel is Fidel...Fidel is irreplaceable and the people shall continue his work when he is no longer physically with us, although his ideas will always be with us - the same ideas that have made it possible to build the beacon of dignity and justice our country represents," Raul Castro said in his first speech as president.
"I appeal to this Assembly, as the supreme body of the State power, to allow me to continue consulting with the maximum leader of the Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro Ruz, the decisions of special transcendence for the future of our nation, basically those associated to defense, foreign policy and the socioeconomic development of the country," he added.
That resolution was subsequently approved by the Assembly.
Regarding the revaluation of the country's currency, Raul Castro indicated: "We are examining everything related to the timely implementation of comrade Fidel's ideas on 'the progressive, gradual and prudent revaluation of the Cuban peso'...At the same time, we keep delving into the phenomenon of the double currency in the economy."
"To avoid traumatic effects or inconsistencies, any changes related to the currency shall be made with a comprehensive approach, mindful, among other things, of the wage system, the retail prices, the entitlements and the subsidies running in the millions presently required by numerous services and products," he added.
In a move that erased the hope that Cuba's younger generation would take the lead in charting the country's course, Raul Castro selected former health minister, founder of the Communist Party and chief of party organisation, 77-year-old Jose Ramon Machado as his number two. General Julio Casas Regueiro replaces Raul Castro as head of the country's armed forces. Meantime, rising younger-generation leader Carlos Lage, 56, who some were hoping would succeed Castro, retains his post as one of several vice presidents.
Fidel Castro who led Cuba for 49 years after overthrowing the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista regime in 1959, last week announced his retirement. He had handed over power to his brother in July 2006 after undergoing a number of major intestinal surgeries.
He will however continue to formally lead the Cuban Communist Party as first secretary - the most powerful position in the country according to the constitution - which gives him veto power. Fidel Castro will also continue to be a legislator, but seat remained empty during Sunday's gathering of the new National Assembly. He has not been seen in public since falling ill.
Raul Castro's ascension to power has prompted discussions about change within Cuba, home to 11 million people, and a possible end to the US embargo imposed since 1960.
The highest-ranking US diplomat in Latin America, Tom Shannon has suggested that there is hope for change.
"There is a possibility and potential for change in Cuba, but those changes will have to be born inside Cuba," he said.
But questioned about the possibility of the end to the embargo, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was reportedly quick to respond: "I can't imagine that happening any time soon."
According to University of California political science professor, Miroslav Nincic the Helms-Burton Act passed in 1996, mandates the maintenance of the embargo "as long as the Cuban government is headed by either Castro". That law strengthens the embargo against Cuba by penalising countries that trade with both the U.S. and Cuba.
With the news of the change in political leadership in Cuba, US President George W. Bush has urged election reform in that country.
"We're going to help. The United States will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty," he said.
The call for a move toward democracy was echoed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who insisted that Cubans have a right to choose their leaders in democratic elections. She urged to the 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".
Meantime, long-time Cuba ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has promised that the good relations between the two countries will not change.
"We are going to continue to be united. Only in unity can we progress to further victory," he declared.