Castro's Brother Chosen to Lead Cuba

Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel, was chosen as president by the Cuba's newly elected National Assembly. The move occurred several days after Fidel Castro said he was resigning as the country's leader.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Almost 50 years after one man came to define the nation of Cuba, he has stepped aside to make room for a new Castro. Fidel's younger brother Raul was selected as Cuba's new president yesterday. He's basically been running the country since Fidel became ill a year and a half ago. But in a speech before the Cuban National Assembly yesterday he made it clear that Fidel lives on.

President RAUL CASTRO (Cuba): (Through translator) Fidel is Fidel. All of us know Fidel is irreplaceable.

INSKEEP: So let's talk through what this means for Cuba. We're joined by NPR's Tom Gjelten, who's covered Cuba for years. And did this speech signal any change, Tom?

GJELTEN: I actually thought, Steve, that there was a tone or a message of defiance in this speech. And it actually began last Friday when Fidel himself wrote a newspaper column in which he said he did not have the right to remain silent. And then he expressed very clearly that he did not think there should be major changes in Cuba.

Following up two days later then, Raul makes a speech and he seemed to go out of his way to dampen any speculation that this would be a turning point for Cuba, that Fidel stepping down would signal, you know, some new era, where there's going to be more openness and more reform. He went out of his way to say that things would be the same, that there would be continuity, and then something else that's important.

He appointed, or he arranged for the appointment of, a man named Jose Ramon Machado as the new number two. Now, Ramon Machado is a very hard-line revolutionary veteran. A lot of people were thinking there was going to be a reformer named as number two. The fact that the Cuban leadership has put in a hardliner as number two I think is yet another indication that they're saying, not so fast; no big changes.

INSKEEP: A couple of older men too. Seventy-six for Raul, 77 for the number two man.

GJELTEN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: It does make you wonder, is this a moment when Cuba's leaders have to work extra hard to stay in control, and so it suddenly becomes harder for them to make changes rather than to move into a new direction?

GJELTEN: Well, I think that's right, Steve. I think there have been so many expectations and they partly have themselves to blame. Because in the last few months they have allowed a lot more criticism of the revolution and a lot more dissent from the official line, so that they have opened the way for the Cuban people to begin questioning and making known their dissatisfaction with the economic system. And I think that they now recognize that those are pressures for change that have to be contained.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that Fidel Castro has already been writing a newspaper editorial, which came out on Friday. And he did say yesterday, Raul said yesterday, that Fidel would remain the commander-in-chief of the revolution. That's the quote. How much power is Fidel Castro still going to have?

GJELTEN: Well, Steve, Fidel will continue to be the first secretary of the Communist Party. And in a communist system, it's really the head of the party, more than the president, who has the political power. So I think that Fidel - the issue is his health. I think, until he really is incapable of exercising any influence, I think we are now seeing that behind the scenes he will continue to be very important.

INSKEEP: So what is the United States doing about all this?

GJELTEN: The United States is just standing by. U.S. officials, the Bush administration, like previous administrations, have continually called for democracy in Cuba. And they're saying that the selection of a new president in Cuba is a time when the Cuban people should have an opportunity for freedom and democracy. But, you know, basically that message, of course, is being ignored.

INSKEEP: You have to wonder - if the United States says this change in power is a chance for a change in Cuba's governing system, it increases the likelihood that Cubans will dig in and keep things as they are.

GJELTEN: Well, in the short run I think that's true. But the expectation for change are such that I think it's going to be hard for us to generalize about what's going to happen in the next few weeks and months.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten here in Washington. He's covered Cuba for many years.

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