Raul Castro’s Ascension Signals Limited Change to Cuban Policy

By Jens Erik Gould

Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) — Raul Castro’s ascension to Cuba’s presidency signals the communist country’s policies are unlikely to change even as his brother Fidel steps back after a half century in power.

Raul Castro, 76, was chosen for a five-year term as head of state by Cuba’s 614-member national assembly yesterday. He used his first speech to acknowledge his brother and said Fidel would be consulted on the most important matters, such as defense, foreign policy and economic development.

“This is a succession from one comandante to another,” said Jose Azel, senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “There’s no hint of any changes.”

By keeping control of the island nation in the Castro family, Cuba aims to preserve the character of the 1959 revolution while avoiding a power struggle and rapid political transformation.

“Fidel is not substitutable,” Raul Castro said in a speech. “There is only one commander and chief of the Cuban revolution: Fidel is Fidel.”

Fidel Castro, 81, began transferring day-to-day control to his brother in July 2006, when he underwent intestinal surgery. Since then, the older brother has maintained his influence by using commentaries in the state media to forestall Raul’s bid to allow more private enterprise.

Managing Succession

Fidel “managed his own succession,” said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

In another sign of status quo, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a member of the party who fought with Fidel Castro in the 1959 revolution, was named first vice president, the government’s No. 2 post.

Raul Castro had been in charge of the military since his brother took power. His appointment signals that maintaining political stability is the top priority for the government and sends a message to the Cuban people that the military holds the most power on the island, said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha who studies and visits Cuba.

“This was a salute to the past more than it was a welcoming in of the future,” Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs said. “It doesn’t at all suggest that important changes won’t take place.”

Economic Growth

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

“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 yesterday.

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 Associated Press.

The Castro brothers have fought together since 1953, when they led a failed attack on Cuba’s Moncada army barracks. After being released from jail, they joined Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Mexico, and in 1956 crossed the Caribbean in a boat with 80 fighters to start a guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista’s forces killed all but a dozen of them.

The Castros fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains and rallied enough support to force Batista from power on New Year’s Day in 1959.

Venezuelan Support

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the younger Castro a “good friend” and “comrade” during his weekly talk show “Hello, President.”

“He is more than Fidel’s brother, he is the inseparable comrade,” Chavez said. “Raul has always been here. Always silent, always almost invisible, but always working, true to the revolution, true to the Cuban people, and true, to his core, to his big brother Fidel.”

Chavez assured Raul Castro on a telephone call broadcast on Venezuelan television that he will continue to support Cuba.

“Nothing is going to change at all,” Chavez said.

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