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Bureaucrat to Become Cuba's President  04/19 06:20

   A 57-year-old bureaucrat will take Raul Castro's place as the president of 
Cuba on Thursday as a government led by a single family for six decades tries 
to ensure the long-term survival of one of the world's last communist states.

   HAVANA (AP) -- A 57-year-old bureaucrat will take Raul Castro's place as the 
president of Cuba on Thursday as a government led by a single family for six 
decades tries to ensure the long-term survival of one of the world's last 
communist states.

   Members of the National Assembly voted Wednesday on Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel 
Bermudez's nomination as the sole candidate for president. The result won't be 
officially announced until Thursday morning but it's already clear because the 
assembly approves all executive branch proposals by margins of 95 percent or 
higher.

   The 86-year-old Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, which is 
designated by the constitution as "the superior guiding force of society and 
the state." As a result, he will still be the most powerful person in Cuba for 
the time being.

   His departure from the presidency is nonetheless a symbolically charged 
moment for a country that has been under the absolute rule of one family since 
the revolution --- first by revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and, for the last 
decade, his younger brother.

   Facing biological reality but still active and apparently healthy, Raul 
Castro is stepping down as president in an effort to guarantee that new leaders 
can maintain the government's grip on power in the face of economic stagnation, 
an aging population and increasing disenchantment among younger generations.

   "I like sticking with the ideas of President Fidel Castro because he did a 
lot for the people of Cuba, but we need rejuvenation, above all in the 
economy," said Melissa Mederos, a 21-year-old schoolteacher. "Diaz-Canel needs 
to work hard on the economy, because people need to live a little better."

   Most Cubans know their first vice president as an uncharismatic figure who 
until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. 
That image changed slightly this year as state media placed an increasing 
spotlight on Diaz-Canel's public appearances, including remarks to the press 
last month that included his promise to make Cuba's government more responsive 
to its people.

   "We're building a relationship between the government and the people here," 
he said then after casting a ballot for members of the National Assembly. "The 
lives of those who will be elected have to be focused on relating to the 
people, listening to the people, investigating their problems and encouraging 
debate."

   Diaz-Canel gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top 
Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe 
him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public 
services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the 
vice presidency.

   In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the 
public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that 
included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some 
European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

   But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of 
hardliners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater 
openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. 
International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he 
makes after he officially takes office on Thursday.

   Two years after taking over from his ailing brother in 2006, Castro launched 
a series of reforms that expanded Cuba's private sector to nearly 600,000 
people and allowed citizens greater freedom to travel and access to 
information. He has failed to fix the generally unproductive and highly 
subsidized state-run businesses that, along with a Soviet-model bureaucracy, 
employ three of every four Cubans. State salaries average $30 a month, leaving 
workers struggling to feed their families, and often dependent on corruption or 
remittances from relatives overseas.

   Castro's moves to open the economy have largely been frozen or reversed as 
soon as they began to generate conspicuous shows of wealth by the new 
entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its 
citizens.

   "I don't want to see a capitalist system, hopefully that doesn't come here, 
but we have to fix the economy," said Roberto Sanchez, a 41-year-old 
construction worker. "I'd like to have more opportunity, to buy a car, and have 
a few possessions."

   As in Cuba's legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday 
were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offer only the option 
of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 
percent of the votes in their favor.

   The Candidacy Commission also nominated another six vice presidents of the 
Council of State, Cuba's highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro 
Valdez, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 
1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.

   State media went into overdrive Wednesday with a single message: Cuba's 
system is continuing in the face of change. Commentators on state television 
and online offered lengthy explanations of why Cuba's single-party politics and 
socialist economy are superior to multi-party democracy and free markets, and 
assured Cubans that no fundamental changes were occurring, despite some new 
faces at the top.

   "It falls on our generation to give continuity to the revolutionary 
process," said assembly member Jorge Luis Torres, a municipal councilman from 
central Artemisa province who appeared to be in his 40s. "We're a generation 
born after the revolution, whose responsibility is driving the destiny of the 
nation."


(KA)

 
 
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