February 24, 2008 / 6:16 AM / 11 years ago

Raul Castro takes over as Cuban leader

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s new leader Raul Castro vowed it would remain a bastion of revolution as he took over on Sunday from his brother Fidel Castro, who resisted half a century of U.S. attempts to oust him.

Raul Castro addresses the audience after being elected president of Cuba during a meeting of the National Assembly in Havana February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

Raul Castro, 76, a former hardliner feared for his ruthlessness against his brother’s enemies but who has adopted a softer tone in recent years, nodded and smiled as legislators applauded his election by the rubber-stamp National Assembly.

He is expected to bring some economic reforms and he said he might revalue the peso currency, but in a sign that change is unlikely to be deep or abrupt, Communist Party ideologue Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was named first vice president, or Cuba’s No. 2.

In his first speech as leader, Raul Castro said he would continue to consult Fidel Castro, who stepped down on Tuesday because of poor health, on important decisions of state.

“The mandate of this legislature is clear ... to continue strengthening the revolution at a historic moment,” he said.

He added that he was accepting the job on the condition that Fidel Castro continued to be the “commander in chief of the revolution” — a title created for him during his guerrilla uprising before the 1959 revolution.

“Fidel is Fidel. Fidel is irreplaceable and the people will continue his work when he is no longer physically around.”

Raul Castro lacks the oratorical flair of his brother, whom he converted to communism, but he has encouraged ordinary Cubans in the last 19 months to air their concerns over shortages and inefficiencies in the economy.

The appointment of Machado Ventura, a member of Raul Castro’s inner circle, suggested change would be subtle.

“This is about signaling continuity externally and internally,” said Julia Sweig, an expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington, although she said Cuba’s leaders are well aware they need to address food shortages and other problems.

“Raul is really a pragmatist and for all of them the clock on bread and butter issues starts ticking now. It’s a mistake to think there’s an enormous amount of light between any of these people. They’re all basically headed in the same direction, with some nuances,” she said.

Cuban exiles in Miami, the heartland of opposition to the Castro brothers, were disappointed but not surprised at the appointment of Raul Castro as president and the elevation of a communist hardliner to the No. 2 position.

“Nothing new, more of the same. It’s continuity. It’s once more depriving the Cuban people of choosing their destiny ... I guess it shouldn’t surprise anybody,” said Ninoska Perez of the Cuban Liberty Council, a hardline anti-Castro group.

‘FIDEL LITE’

Raul Castro has led the West’s last communist state since July 2006 when his brother temporarily handed over power after undergoing intestinal surgery. Fidel Castro officially retired on Tuesday.

The U.S. administration has dubbed him “Fidel Lite” and criticized the leadership transition as the handing of power from one dictator to another.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday that Cuba needs to move toward democracy.

“We urge the Cuban 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,” she said in a statement before Raul Castro was confirmed as president.

A leftist icon in his army fatigues, cap and beard but oppressor of his people to his foes, Fidel Castro overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

He then survived assassination attempts, a CIA-backed invasion, the Soviet Union’s collapse and a U.S. economic embargo to rule for almost half a century.

Slideshow (19 Images)

Since his operation, the charismatic 81-year-old leader has not been seen in public and television footage shows him to have grown frail and shuffling, posing in a Cuban athletic team tracksuit instead of his trademark fatigues.

He will continue to wield influence as the head of the Communist Party and by writing articles on world affairs in what he calls “the battle of ideas”.

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Jeff Franks and Tom Brown in Miami , Editing by Michael Christie and Kieran Murray)

For special coverage from Reuters on Castro's retirement, see: here

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