Published: July 26, 2007
For the first time since he was appointed interim leader, Raul Castro, filling in for his ailing brother Fidel, addressed loyalists in the celebration on Thursday for Cuba's revolution.
The 76-year-old acting president and defense minister arrived for the Revolution Day festivities in Camaguey, a provincial capital with narrow colonial streets and daily afternoon downpours, southeast of Havana.
For decades, Fidel – who turns 81 next month – was a fixture at the Revolution celebrations, giving speeches known to last for many hours. His absence this year gave the provisional government an air of permanence.
As the sun rose over Camaguey, about 100,000 people filled a plaza of red-tile paths and green grass flanked by towering palm trees. Red and black flags symbolizing the holiday hung from ever floor of a nearby apartment building.
Many people wore red T-shirts and waved miniature Cuban flags over their heads during the ceremony. "Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" they screamed. Speaker after speaker spoke about Fidel, celebrating his life, repeating that he was attending the celebration in spirit and wishing him well.
"We could hardly have suspected what a hard blow was awaiting us," the younger Castro said of Fidel's illness. "These have truly been difficult moments, although with a diametrically different impact than that expected by our enemies, who wished for chaos to take hold and for Cuban socialism to collapse."
The one-hour speech came exactly a year after Fidel's last public appearances, when he celebrated the Revolution Day anniversary with speeches in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Holguin. He has not been seen in public since announcing on July 31, 2006, that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to set aside in favor of Raul. He is apparently still too sick to appear in person.
Fidel has begun penning essays dubbed "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" every few days, but appears to be in little hurry to return to power.
"I am certain Fidel is recovering, but there's no problem because we have Raul," said Candida Alvarez, a 76-year-old retiree who hung a string of paper red, white and blue Cuban flags from the front door of her wooden home near Camaguey's historic center.
Alvarez, who works with neighborhood communist officials to mediate disputes between residents, said "Fidel will always be the boss, but now Raul is the boss too."
"He's been there for a year and has gained popularity, earned the warmth of the people," she said.
Raul Castro has said he's not fond of long speeches and is seen as a pragmatist. He has said in past official interviews and public appearances that he would be willing to discuss improving relations with Washington, whose 45-year-old embargo prohibits U.S. tourists from visiting the island and chokes off almost all trade between both countries.
On Thursday, he again signaled his openness to talks with American officials, saying if the next U.S. administration after the 2008 election "desists from their arrogance and decides to converse in a civilized manner, it would be a welcome change."
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack responded coolly to the comments.
"The only real dialogue that's needed is with the Cuban people," McCormack said in Washington. "If the Cuban people were able to express their opinion on the question of whether or not they would like to freely choose their leaders, the answer would be yes. Unfortunately that's not a dialogue that is taking place in Cuba at the moment."
Raul, with his characteristic frankness, acknowledged that Cuba suffers from numerous problems that require "structural changes," especially government salaries that fail to cover workers' needs.
He said authorities were studying salaries and other issues, but advised that production must improve before wages can increase.
"No country has the luxury of spending more than it has," he said, adding that Cuba must depend more on its own production and less on imports, especially food and milk.
The acting president noted that the National Assembly had moved to resolve some food production problems, straightening out back payments to farmers and cooperatives and significantly increasing how much it pays meat and milk producers.
"We know that what Raul says will be the guide for our revolutionary direction," said Jesus Garcia, president of Camaguey's provincial assembly. "What he says is up to him, but they will be important reflections and we will be ready and listening closely."
Fireworks marking Revolution Day shook much of Camaguey Wednesday evening and local Revolutionary Defense Committees organized late-night parties lasting until Raul took the podium shortly after sunrise.
Cuban flags and black-and-red flags symbolizing the July 26 Movement that launched the revolution were plastered on almost everything stationary, hanging in store windows and fluttering from the crumbling balconies of pastel-colored houses.
Cuba's third largest city and the capital of a cattle-producing province of the same name, Camaguey is hosting the yearly ceremony that marks the July 26, 1953, attack by both Castros and a ragtag rebel band on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
The uprising quickly degenerated into a disaster and many rebels were shot dead during the chaotic fighting or captured and killed a short time later by Cuban forces. But it became a rallying cry for a subsequent revolutionary movement that gained new strength and eventually toppled Dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.
From The Associated Press. [Copyright 2013 NPR]