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by Dalia Acosta

To U.S. Dismay, Fidel Retires as Revered Icon

(IPS) HAVANA -- Closely following in the footsteps of his brother Fidel, Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, defied expectations and took many by surprise by selecting Jose Ramon Machado, a member of the Communist Party old guard, as first vice president.

Seen as one of the foremost representatives of the country's hard-line communists, Machado is not only a symbol of the continuing grip on power held by the now elderly leaders of the 1959 revolution, but also has a reputation for efficiency -- a quality that the new president is apparently seeking among his closest associates.

"He is demanding, very demanding! To be honest with you, sometimes I have personally told him that he does not always use the best methods in his demandingness," said Castro, explaining his decision to the 597 members of the National Assembly (parliament) who met Sunday in their first session.

Whatever his skills as an organizer, there are more than a few former Communist youth leaders who now hold key posts in the government or the Communist Party and who have not forgotten the critical stance he took in the early 1990s when the Young Communist League attempted to reach out to the younger generations in a more dynamic, modern fashion.

Highlighting Machado's merits, the new president said he had been Cuba's "best public health minister," a position he held from 1960 to 1967, that he took on a number of strategic tasks within the Communist Party, and that he was the head of the party in the western province of Matanzas at the time of the government drive for a 10 million ton sugar harvest in 1970.

"Matanzas was the only province that met its target, of one million tons of sugar," said Castro, recalling one of the toughest years of the Cuban revolution, when after months of hard work, a concentration of resources in the sugar industry, and the putting on hold of other sectors of the economy, the country failed to fulfil what was more of a political than an economic goal.

Unanimously elected by the National Assembly, the 77-year-old Machado, a medical doctor by profession, will be the first vice president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers -- a formula that put paid to recent speculation that current vice president Carlos Lage would hold one of these two key posts.

The decision to keep both positions in the hands of the same person was explained by the new president in a speech broadcast to the nation Sunday night.

Alluding to Washington's hostility towards Cuba, as manifested by the nearly half-century U.S. trade embargo, Castro said a decision had been reached to leave both positions in the hands of one of the top leaders of the revolution in order to be able to act swiftly "in any eventuality."

"Incredible. On the streets, people were even saying that Raul would only be the head of the party and the army, and that Lage would be the new president," Alma Gomez, a 57-year-old retired police officer, who now makes a living by means of private enterprise, told IPS. "I thought it was unlikely, but no one imagined what would really happen."

Considered one of the driving forces behind the economic reforms of the 1990s, the 56-year-old Lage is the only representative of the so-called "intermediate generation" among the five vice presidents of the new Council of State elected by the National Assembly.

His ascent is seen as a symbol of the need to recognize the younger generations, and as evidence of the willingness of the country's leaders to adopt changes that, according to analysts, must be undertaken in order to guarantee the stability of the Cuban system.

"The government must tackle the problems raised by society over the past year" in a series of public debates, said an analyst who preferred not to be named. "Machado's presence alongside Raul could be a way of saying that the changes needed to sustain the revolutionary process are going to be taken by the same generation that carried out the revolution," he remarked to IPS.

While some dissidents and sectors of the exile community say the Raul Castro-Machado team will opt for "more of the same" or strong-arm tactics, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said he feels "a certain cautious optimism with regard to the gradual application of some economic reforms."

"I don't think Machado will be an obstacle for the economic reforms. Although some people see him as conservative, I think he is an intelligent man who will understand that the country needs changes," Espinosa Chepe, one of the 75 dissidents handed harsh prison sentences in 2003, who was released on parole for health reasons, told IPS.

But the spokesman for the moderate dissident coalition Arco Progresista, Manuel Cuesta Morua, said on the other hand that "Machado's election is a symbol of the concession made to the conservative faction in the country."

"Machado symbolizes that conservative sector and its position at the head of the process of reforms, which it is controlling. After Fidel, it was obvious that the old guard was going to keep its grip on power. This is a government hand-made by Fidel Castro, who will continue to have a decisive influence on the direction taken by the country," he commented to IPS.

Eighteen months after temporarily yielding power to his younger brother Raul for health reasons, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro announced last Tuesday that he was retiring as the country's leader.

One of the first steps taken by the National Assembly on Sunday was to unanimously approve Raul Castro's proposal that Fidel continue to be consulted on matters of great importance, such as defense, foreign policy and development.

Although he did not actually use the word "change," Raul Castro did refer to the need to deal with pressing problems faced by Cuban society, said some unnecessary regulations would soon begin to be eliminated, and called for respect for the right to express criticism -- as long as it is expressed within the framework of the law.

"In five years, this will be a better Cuba, a more socialist Cuba," said Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra, representative of a younger generation closely identified with Lage.

"This is not the first time that Cuba has carried out a profound rectification," Sierra said in a conversation with IPS and journalists representing two other international media outlets. The changes and measures will be introduced in accordance with the country's needs, he added.

"The Cuba of today is not like the Cuba of years past...the changes that Cubans need will be made, in the Cuban way," said the minister.

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Albion Monitor   February 25, 2008   (

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