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Two days after Cuba's national assembly selected him to succeed his older brother Fidel as head of state, the new president was to hold his first meeting with a foreign dignitary, as Cubans and the rest of the world weighed the meaning of his formal ascent to power.

Ahead of the meeting, Vatican Secretary of State Tarciscio Bertone said he expected "clarity" and "sincerity" in his talks with the new leader.

"I have come here at a special, extraordinary moment," Bertone told a joint news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

The meeting follows calls by the Vatican for reform on the communist-ruled island, and Cuban dissidents have called on Bertone to urge the new president to release the communist regime's political prisoners.

Bertone hailed as "positive" the recent freeing of certain prisoners, but said he had not called for amnesties.

Cuban bishops issued a statement on Monday about the new parliament and Raul Castro, elected president on Sunday after 19 months standing in for his ailing brother, with old allies also filling key government posts.

They said they were praying the president and parliament would "move forward decisively these transcendent measures that we know must be gradual, but which can satisfy the longing and worries expressed by Cubans."

Bertone's visit marks the 10th anniversary of a historic visit by the previous pope, John Paul. He is to meet Raul in Havana's Palace of the Revolution after holding masses during a tour of four provinces.

'This is the best that could have happened to Cuba'
Castro, 76, Cuba's highest-ranking general and chief of the country's Revolutionary Armed Forces for nearly 50 years, was elected president in a vote on Sunday by the national assembly.

His brother, communist icon Fidel Castro, 81, led Cuba for a half-century but announced last week he would step down due to poor health.

Known as a pragmatist with solid backing from the powerful military, Raul Castro promised to stay faithful to the Cuban revolution and to consult his brother on major issues. And he said he would remain vigilant in the face of Cuba's powerful northern neighbour the United States.

"Fidel is irreplaceable; the people will continue his work when he is no longer with us physically, though his ideas always will be here," Raul Castro told lawmakers in his acceptance speech.

Castro announced the appointment of regime veteran Jose Ramon Machado, 77, for Cuba's number-two spot, dashing hopes he might promptly elevate younger leaders such as Carlos Lage, one of the country's vice presidents.

With Machado in his inner circle, "Raul Castro is signalling that the old guard is still on top," said Dan Erikson, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue.

The US administration said on Monday it would maintain its decades-long embargo on Cuba and said there was no realistic hope of genuine reform given the lingering presence of hard line communist figures.

"The only thing that changed yesterday was a new leader emerged, but there is no indication that the Cuban people are going to be allowed to pursue a free and prosperous future," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

Some of the 27 European Union (EU) member states, led by Spain which normalised relations with Havana last year, favour definitively dropping sanctions which were suspended in 2005.

The EU also said it was willing to engage in a "constructive political dialogue" with Raul Castro.

During his 19 months as interim president, Raul Castro encouraged Cubans to voice their concerns and made minor adjustments to the country's troubled state-run economy. In his acceptance speech, he suggested more economic reforms were in the offing but gave no details.

Cubans voiced hopes the new president would usher in long-sought economic reforms to improve their daily lives.

"This is the best that could have happened to Cuba," Carlos Murcia, a 78-year-old craftsman, said. "Raul already knows the situation. He knows how to solve problems, in any case the most serious ones."


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