Cubas Raul Castro faces tough reforms challenge

Havana , Feb 25 | Updated: Feb 26 2008, 06:04am hrs
Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, faces a delicate balancing act as he tries to improve living standards and food supplies while staying faithful to his brother Fidel Castro's communist revolution.

Raul Castro was named president by the one-party state's National Assembly on Sunday, and is widely seen as willing to enact limited economic reforms in a country where people struggle daily with shortages of food and other basic items.

The 76-year-old general, who has run Cuba as acting president since Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006, immediately promised to get going on some minor reforms.

But even moderate changes like making the government more efficient, revaluing the peso currency and lifting some state restrictions will take time to churn their way through the political machinery. And Fidel Castro, 81, who has dominated almost every aspect of life on the island since his 1959 revolution, will remain a powerful force behind the scenes even after resigning last week because of poor health. Raul Castro stressed he would not deviate far from the socialist path and said he would continue to consult with his brother on important issues. "Fidel is Fidel. Fidel is irreplaceable."

The new leader vowed to keep fighting for the revolution and an elderly Communist Party ideologue Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was picked for the No. 2 job of first vice president.

It is likely to be business as usual for Cuba's 11 million people, the vast majority of whom were born under Fidel Castro's rule after his rebels swept down from the Sierra Maestra mountains to topple U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Analysts say Raul Castro will make changes, but move cautiously. "My feeling is that Raul will do some modest reforms in the near future," said Cuba expert Archibald Ritter of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Reuters

He urged Castro to free up restrictions on small business owners such as car mechanics, fishermen, and arts and crafts vendors. "The impact would be beneficial. I think there would be rapid pay off," he said at a conference on Cuba in Miami before Raul Castro was confirmed as president.

Once a hardliner who supervised the execution of enemies of the revolution, Raul Castro has encouraged moderate debate in recent months and asked Cubans to voice their concerns about life on the Caribbean island.

Most complained about hardships in an economy that is 90 percent run by the state.

By hinting at reforms and opening debate, the younger Castro has raised expectations inside Cuba.

"Raul has opened a Pandora's box," said Havana-born Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "If he only introduces marginal, cosmetic change, the frustration of the people will increase."

The president will also likely move slowly on international issues.

He has said he would be open to talks with the United States, which has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for 46 years, but U.S. officials made clear on Sunday that Washington wants political prisoners freed and multi-party elections called before it will consider changing its stance.

Raul Castro starts work on Monday by hosting Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is visiting Cuba to improve relations between the communist government and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church is the only major institution in Cuba which is not controlled by the state, and it is expected to play an important social role in any post-Castro transition.