Thursday, July 26, 2007

Raul Castro leads Cuban celebration, reaches out to US

Agence France Presse
Thu Jul 26, 3:04 PM ET

Cuba on Thursday offered to hold talks with the United States -- an overture quickly rejected by Washington -- as the communist country marked its first national holiday without ailing leader Fidel Castro.

Interim President Raul Castro led Cuba's national day festivities as his convalescing brother, who was last seen in public a year ago, missed the event for the first time -- a sign of communist island's transition taking root.

Raul Castro, 76, used his keynote address at National Rebellion Day festivities Thursday to extend an olive branch to Cuba's longtime nemesis.

Castro's offer however, was extended to whatever president succeeds US President George W. Bush following the November 2008 elections -- a sign that Havana did not anticipate a warm reception from the current White House.

"If the new US administration once and for all can set aside its overbearing nature and talk in a civilized fashion, that will be most welcome," he told thousands of Cubans at a rally marking the holiday.

If Washington persists with more than half a century of enmity, "we are prepared to continue a policy of confrontation for another 50 years if need be," Castro warned.

The Bush administration on Thursday quickly rejected Castro's offer of talks.

"The only real dialogue he needs is with the Cuban people," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"Unfortunately, that is not the dialogue that is taking place in Cuba at the moment," McCormack said.

Some analysts said Fidel's no-show at the politically charged event was a sign he is either unready to make a comeback, or has unofficially bowed out.

"I think this is one more step in the institutional cementing of the succession from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro a year ago," said moderate opposition activist Manuel Cuesta.

Before some 100,000 people, Raul Castro presided over the ceremonies marking the 54th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada barracks in the city of Santiago in 1953 -- a turning point in the struggle to overthrow US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Fidel Castro officially handed power to his brother Raul, the defense minister, on July 31, 2006 -- four days after undergoing a gastro-intestinal operation -- and has only appeared in photographs and videos since.

Many Cubans had hoped that the aging revolutionary would appear at other recent national commemorations, but they had been cued by official media not to expect him to make an appearance at Thursday's events.

Fidel has found a new way to make his presence felt however, as he has voiced his opinion on world affairs and arch-foe the United States through a series of front-page editorials published in the communist daily Granma since late March.

Raul Castro meanwhile has shied away from cameras and the pulpit cherished by his older brother, carving his own discreet leadership style that contrasts sharply with his charismatic sibling, who has the gift of gab.

He has kept the Americas' only one-party communist system intact, crushing hopes among Cuban exiles in Miami that the government would collapse without the elder sibling at the helm.

The younger Castro, now a bespectacled granddad with a reputation as a tough hardliner but also a family man, recently suffered a personal tragedy as his wife, Vilma Espin, whom he met in the heat of the revolution, died last month.

Some analysts believe Raul Castro could open the economy, but so far no meaningful reform has been undertaken.

Thursday, Raul Castro also said economic reforms were being studied, and that new foreign investment would be considered -- as long as it respects Cuba's state-led model.

Cuban dissidents say nothing has changed under Raul Castro and that repression has even increased while the island remains in "political limbo."

The United States and Cuba do not have full diplomatic relations. The United States has had a trade embargo clamped on Havana for 45 years.

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