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Small changes, but changes as Raul takes power
In his first words as president, Raul Castro made it clear that he would make no radical changes and promised to consult his brother on every important decision. He said Fidel was still alive and alert, and the time had yet to come when the leaders of the 1959 revolution had to pass the baton to a new generation.

"Fidel is Fidel, you know that well," he told the National Assembly after it voted him President on Sunday. "He is irreplaceable, and the people will continue his work even though he is not physically here."

Yet the moment marked a turning point in Cuban history. For the first time since Fidel seized power in January 1959, the Government is in the hands of a different leader, a pragmatic military officer who lacks his charisma and ego. Raul has a reputation as a consensus builder, a man who listens closely to his advisers, delegates authority and holds his underlings accountable for their decisions.

The trappings of Cuban leadership have also changed, even if the message has not. Fidel, ever the revolutionary, usually appeared in olive green fatigues; Raul, 76, addressed the assembly in a dark suit, grey tie and gold-rimmed glasses.

He spoke calmly for half an hour, a sharp contrast with Fidel's fiery lectures, which often went on for hours. He said the Government needed to change and proposed giving more power to provincial governments and streamlining the bureaucracy in Havana. "Today a more compact structure is required," he said.

No government institution was sacred. "We should never believe that what we have done is perfect," he said.

Despite hints of change, other actions by the assembly ensured the continued power of Cuba's old guard. It picked another veteran of the revolution, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 76, as the First Vice-President. A former health minister, Mr Machado Ventura has a reputation as a communist hardliner fiercely loyal to the Castros.

The assembly re-elected Ricardo Alarcon, 70, as its president.

Carlos Lage, 56, a doctor close to Fidel who engineered the economy after Soviet aid dried up in the 1990s, remains in the same role he had before, one of five vice-presidents.

The Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, 42, was also passed over for promotion.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, urged the new leader "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".

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Raul is the struggling economy. Since becoming acting president in July 2006, when his brother became ill, he has raised expectations that he might make it easier to earn a decent salary within the state-run system, but many Cubans greeted mention of economic reform in his speech with a shrug, doubtful that change was imminent.

(The New York Times)

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