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Vol. 72/No. 10      March 10, 2008

 
National Assembly elects Cuban leadership
(front page)
 
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
AND BEN O’SHAUGHNESSY
 
HAVANA, February 25—The 614 deputies newly elected to Cuba’s parliament, the National Assembly of People’s Power, elected a 31-member Council of State yesterday. The new National Assembly, elected every five years on the basis of territory, was chosen in Cuba’s January 20 general elections.

Under the Cuban constitution, the Council of State, elected from among the members of the National Assembly, acts with the powers of the Assembly between sessions and executes its resolutions and decisions.

The National Assembly elected Raúl Castro, 76, to be president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, the country’s head of state and head of government. He has been the country’s first vice president since 1976 and minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces since 1959. José Ramón Machado, another longtime leader of the revolution, was elected first vice president.

Six days earlier, in a step that surprised few people here, President Fidel Castro announced that for health reasons he would “neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the Council of State and Commander-in-Chief.” He noted that he had shouldered those responsibilities since the adoption of Cuba’s current constitution in 1976, and prior to that time had been prime minister for nearly 18 years.

In July 2006 Castro was hospitalized for intestinal surgery and asked to be relieved on a provisional basis from his active responsibilities in the Cuban state, government, and Communist Party. He delegated his duties as president, commander-in-chief, and first secretary of the party’s Central Committee to Raúl Castro, first vice president of the Council of State and Ministers. Other Cuban government leaders assumed responsibilities for the country’s health, energy, and educational programs, which Fidel had directly headed. (Castro’s July 31, 2006, statement was printed in the August 14 issue of the Militant that year and is available online at www.themilitant.com/2006/7030/703060.html.)

In his February 18 announcement, Fidel Castro referred several times to the “precarious state” of his health. In a message three days later, he noted that the process of selection of the new leadership in Cuba had “left me exhausted.” Many workers here have expressed the opinion that Castro’s decision was correct, since his health no longer allowed him to continue as president and commander-in-chief. They are relieved that the most important leadership responsibilities of the state, government, and party will be shouldered by those with the health and energy to do so.

The first act of the February 24 National Assembly session was the swearing in of the deputies to that body. There had been significant renewal of the membership of the assembly in the countrywide elections in January. Nearly two-thirds of the 614 legislators were elected for the first time. Some 83 percent of the deputies were born after the 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution or were younger than 10 years old at the time.

Thirty-six deputies are 30 years or younger, and the average age of the legislators is 49. Eighteen-year-old Liaena Hernández, a university student currently serving in the military’s border brigade in Guantánamo, eastern Cuba, conducted the swearing-in ceremony. The voting age in this country is 16. Cubans can be elected to local and provincial legislatures at the age of 16 and to the National Assembly at 18.

About 35 percent of the deputies are Black or mestizo, up from 33 percent in the assembly elected in 2003 and 28 percent in 1998. Some 43 percent are women, a 7 percent increase in relation to the outgoing assembly. Cuba is one of the countries with the highest percentage of female parliamentary members: the corresponding world figure is 17.7 percent; 20.3 percent for western, central, and eastern Europe; and 16.8 percent in the current U.S. Congress.

Members of Cuba’s parliament, who are elected to a five-year term, receive no salary. They continue to work their existing jobs, which range from members of the armed forces to plant managers, university students, scientific researchers, workers, farmers, and leaders of unions and other mass organizations.

In addition, nearly half of the deputies had been previously elected in their local districts to the municipal assemblies of People’s Power, and will continue to serve in that capacity.

The National Assembly held a secret-ballot election for officers of the parliament and for the 31 members of the Council of State, 13 of whom are new to that body. Ricardo Alarcón and Jaime Crombet were reelected president and vice president of the Assembly, respectively, and Miriam Brito was elected secretary of that body.

The new first vice president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, José Ramón Machado, was a combatant in the war against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. A doctor by profession, he headed the medical department of the Rebel Army’s Second Eastern Front, helping establish hospitals and clinics in that region. He later served as Cuba’s health minister. He has been a member of the Council of State since 1976 and has served as organizational secretary of the Cuban Communist Party since 1974.

Of the other five vice presidents of the Council of State, the National Assembly reelected Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida; Army Corps General Abelardo Colomé, Cuba’s minister of the interior; Carlos Lage, secretary of the Council of Ministers; and Esteban Lazo, a member of the Central Committee secretariat of the Cuban Communist Party. The Assembly also for the first time elected Julio Casas a vice president of the Council of State; Casas had been a member of the Council of State elected in 2003. José Miyar was reelected the secretary of the Council of State.

The National Assembly approved a proposal by Raúl Castro to prepare changes to the Council of Ministers, the top government body, over the course of 2008 and to act on them at the regular National Assembly meeting scheduled for December. The Assembly, at its February meeting, did elect Casas as minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), replacing Raúl Castro. Casas, vice minister of the FAR since 1990, was a combatant in the Rebel Army, fought in the 1961 battle at the Bay of Pigs, and carried out an internationalist combat mission in Ethiopia. He is a Hero of the Republic of Cuba and has held numerous top responsibilities in the FAR, including being in charge of the numerous factories, farms, and other economic enterprises managed by the armed forces.  
 
Speech by Raúl Castro
In his report to the closing session of the National Assembly meeting, Castro said changes were needed in the structure of the government to make it more effective in responding to the country’s needs. In the 1970s, he noted, Cuba had institutionalized its current governing structures. This included the establishment of People’s Power legislative bodies at the local, provincial, and national levels.

Subsequently, he said, “in 1994, the most critical moment of the Special Period, considerable adjustments were made, leading to the reduction and merging of institutions as well as the redistribution of tasks previously entrusted to some of them. These changes, however, were undertaken with the rush imposed by the necessity to quickly adapt to a radically different, very hostile, and extremely dangerous setting.”

The Special Period refers to the sharp economic crisis precipitated in the early 1990s when Cuba abruptly lost most of its aid from and favorable trade relations with the Soviet bloc countries.

Today, Castro said, “a more compact and operational structure is required, with a smaller number of institutions under the central state administration and a better distribution of their functions. This will enable us to reduce the enormous number of meetings,” rules, regulations, and red tape.

As Raúl Castro indicated, the questions he was addressing are part of a decades-long continuity of the revolutionary leadership in Cuba fighting to bring the structures of the state, government, party, and mass organizations into harmony with shifting objective circumstances and class needs of Cuba’s workers and farmers, including with their proletarian internationalist commitment to aid struggles by other toilers across the Americas and around the world. They have learned in practice that overstructuring is the enemy of revolutionary centralist functioning and of what the Argentine-Cuban leader of the revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara, called “politicizing the ministry” in a 1964 talk to Cuban youth.

Che, at that time, pointed to steps the leadership was taking, and that young revolutionists had to help lead, to overcome “indifference” within government ministries and transform them from “a nest of nit-picking bureaucrats and bores.” Revolutionaries must organize their institutions “to pursue a more human relationship, one could say, a relationship less directed through bureaucratic red tape.”

In his closing report to the Assembly, Raúl Castro reiterated arguments he had made in a public speech in CamagŁey last July 26. “The massive support enjoyed by the revolution demands from us that we question everything in order to improve on it,” Castro said. He added that “there is no reason to fear disagreements in a society like ours” and that “debate and criticism within socialism” is necessary.

The new president pointed to some of the principal concerns that have been raised in the wide-ranging discussions that have taken place across the island since his July 26 speech. He said that in the coming weeks and months the government will start reviewing and eliminating some of the economic “prohibitions and regulations” instituted during the Special Period—designed to prevent the emergence of new inequalities under those conditions—that no longer serve the purpose for which they were instituted.

He emphasized that the government’s priority “will be to meet the basic needs of the population.” One challenge he said will be addressed is the dual currency established as a temporary measure in 1994. Cubans receive their income in pesos and are guaranteed certain basic necessities, heavily subsidized, through the libreta, or ration book. But since the Special Period, only a small number of items have been available through the libreta, and in quantities that are either far below most families’ needs or greatly exceed them. Raúl Castro called the current rationing system “irrational and unsustainable.”

At the same time, many items essential to working people such as cooking oil, shampoo, and toothpaste are available only at close to world market prices, and can only be bought using a second currency known as the “convertible peso.” In order to purchase these items, Cubans must exchange the pesos in which their wages are paid for these “convertible pesos,” and since the current exchange rate is roughly 25 Cuban pesos for one “convertible peso,” these goods are largely unattainable for a very large percentage of Cubans.

Castro dismissed the latest calls by U.S. officials for a “transition” in Cuba to “democracy”—that is, as always, moving toward “free enterprise,” toward dog-eat-dog capitalism—as a precondition for lifting the five-decade-long U.S. trade embargo and for normalization of relations.

“How little they know our people, so proud of their sovereignty and independence,” he said.

Yes, how little the U.S. rulers can understand a genuine popular revolution, a socialist revolution—as they’ve not been able to do regarding the Cuban Revolution for more than half a century.  
 
 
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