Cuban National Assembly Meeting to Pick New President (Update1)

By Jens Erik Gould

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) — Cuba’s National Assembly will pick the country’s new president today, formally ending the almost half-century rule of the ailing Fidel Castro.

Raul Castro, Fidel’s 76-year-old brother, will probably become the country’s new leader, said Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

“I couldn’t imagine that Raul won’t be named,” Birns said. “Raul is a rather apt transitional figure because he has the monarchial legitimacy of being in the family line.”

By keeping the presidency in the Castro family, Cuba would aim to preserve the character of the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, 81, while avoiding a power struggle and rapid political change. Fidel is likely to limit his brother from making any major modifications to his policies while he is still alive.

Cuba’s 614-member national assembly, made up entirely of Communist Party members, is meeting today in Havana. Members, chosen in uncontested elections Jan. 20., will select a 31-member Council of State for a five-year term, led by a president who is the country’s head of state and government.

“The Cuban people, facing the legacy of five decades of tyranny, merit our solidarity and support as they seek to construct a brighter future,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today in a statement.

U.S. Relations

The transfer of power is unlikely to immediately improve relations with the U.S., where anti-Castro voters are a significant constituency in Florida.

“There’s some steps before you get to President Bush sitting down with Raul Castro, and that’s where I think you should start,” Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel said on CNN’s “Late Edition” program today. “For example, engaging with some trade.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has said that Cuba’s leaders must show policies are changing by freeing political prisoners and opening the economy before a presidential meeting. Republican John McCain said last week that he didn’t expect any major political reforms in Cuba until after Fidel Castro dies, according to the AP.

Some U.S. leaders do favor dialogue. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Feb. 21 that, if elected, he would meet with the new leader of Cuba “without preconditions.”

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, said that the U.S. may need a “new strategy for Cuba” that includes more trade, and it should consider a dialogue.

“Maybe talking to someone who seems to be a hardcore enemy doesn’t hurt anything, and it might help,” Hutchison told ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” today.

Human-Rights Record

Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that promotes human rights, has said Cuba’s human-rights record is among the worst in the world, alongside Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Signs have grown that Cubans are ready for change. Earlier this month, an Internet video showed students asking critical questions of Ricardo Alarcon, head of the national assembly, about government policies. Last year, three military recruits took control of a bus and rode to the Havana airport in an attempt to take over a Boeing 737, which activists saw as a sign of growing discontent.

Fidel Castro began transferring day-to-day control to his brother in July 2006, when he underwent intestinal surgery. Fidel Castro announced Feb. 18 that he would not accept another term in office.

Raul Castro has been in charge of the military since his brother took power.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jens Erik Gould in Los Angeles at jgould9@bloomberg.net