After spending a lifetime in the role of loyal lieutenant, Raúl Castro finally stepped out of the shadow of his older brother Fidel on Sunday when the country's rubber-stamp National Assembly formally elected him president of the 31-member Council of State. The selection of the younger Castro as Fidel's successor came as no surprise: the Cuban leader had first designated Raúl as his heir apparent within weeks of seizing power in 1959, and the 76-year-old commander of the country's armed forces has been serving as interim president since Fidel fell seriously ill in July 2006 and transferred power to his sibling on a provisional basis. But the ratification of Raúl as chief of state brought down the curtain on Fidel's 49-year-long rule of Cuba and raised hopes within and outside the island that a new era of limited change might soon dawn. "Our government's work must be more efficient," Raúl told the assembled members of the national parliament in Havana's Palace of Conventions. "The country's priority will be to meet the basic needs of the population, both material and spiritual."
That will be no easy task. Raúl will inherit a failed socialist economy that has never fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting loss of an annual multi-billion pipeline of aid that propped up Cuba's Communist regime over three decades. The country's once vaunted public health-care system has fallen on hard times, university graduates must make ends meet on salaries averaging $17 a month, and tens of thousands of Cubans have been fleeing the island in numbers not seen since the Mariel boatlift of 1980. The newly confirmed president of Cuba implicitly acknowledged the daunting array of economic woes facing the country when he underlined his resolve to boost agricultural and livestock production and review a dual-currency system that has put numerous consumer goods beyond the reach of many ordinary Cubans. "This is not an easy path to take," he noted in his inaugural speech as president. "There are objective limitations, we know them well and we suffer daily trying to solve them as soon as possible."
Raúl has been at his brother's side since the summer morning in 1953 when Fidel launched an armed revolt against U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. It thus came as no surprise to hear Raúl repeatedly invoke his predecessor's thoughts and legacy on Sunday and affirm his intention to continue consulting the 81-year-old Fidel on important policy matters. The team Raúl has assembled to help him move the country forward is drawn from old-guard loyalists who have worked closely with him during his long tenure as head of the Cuban military. The man who replaces Raúl as first vice president is José Ramón Machado Ventura, a 77-year-old physician and longtime Polituburo member who fought with Raúl during the guerrilla campaigns of the late 1950s. Of the five vice-presidents below Machado Ventura elected by the National Assembly, only one, Carlos Lage Dávila, is under the age of sixty. Conspicuously absent from the highest echelon of leadership was Felipe Pérez Roque, the country's 42-year-old foreign minister and a well-known protégé of Fidel. But that doesn't mean Raúl will be content to stay the course charted by his brother. "There's a great deal of continuity in the top tier,"notes Brian Latell, a senior researcher at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and former CIA analyst. "But I still think we'll see a lot of change."
Topping the agenda is a number of band-aid reforms that would foster the appearance of change at almost no political cost to the regime. The long-standing restrictions on travel abroad could be among the first to go, and Raúl may encourage the granting of more licenses for restaurants and other small businesses as a first step towards opening up the economy to greater private investment and initiative along the lines of the Chinese model that he is said to greatly admire. The political climate inside Cuba has already eased slightly in the 19 months since Raúl took the helm. "People talk more openly now, they are less afraid," notes a European Union diplomat. "The regime seems less inclined to carry out direct acts of repression." Some Cuban dissidents expect to see more tolerance of critical opinions within clearly defined limits. "Opposition political parties aren't going to be legalized, and the changes overall will not be of any great scope," says Jorge Olivera Castillo, an independent journalist who was arrested in a sweeping crackdown on dissidents in 2003 and spent 20 months behind bars. "But the opposition has gained some small spaces, and it has become a moral reference point."
The ascension of Raúl Castro is not expected to improve U.S.-Cuban relations in the short run. Existing U.S. legislation prohibits any lifting of the long-standing embargo on trade with the island as long as one of the Castro brothers remains in power, and in his 45-minute-long speech Raúl threw a number of rhetorical jabs at the "empire" located 90 miles off Cuban shores. But in one of his first public acts as interim president, the younger Castro extended an olive branch to Washington in an interview granted to the Cuban Communist Party organ Granma in August 2006, and he repeated his interest in normalizing ties with the U.S. in a high-profile speech four months later. Nothing will likely happen on that front in the waning months of the Bush Administration, but the inauguration of a new American president at the start of next year could provide the best window of opportunity for mending fences since the heady days of January 1959 when the Castro brothers were young men and a half-century of Communist dictatorship was about to begin.