Raul Castro urged to change Cuba

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Raul Castro urged to change Cuba

Mon 25 Feb 2008, 20:19 GMT

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's new President Raul Castro came under outside pressure to release political prisoners and allow more dissent on Monday, after taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro who ruled for almost half a century.

The 76-year-old general is expected to edge open slivers of Cuba's wheezing economy but hopes of radical change were dashed when he vowed to stick to socialism and to consult his brother on important issues and named old guard allies to top posts.

Communist Cuba's arch-foe, the United States, and the Vatican started to lean on the former guerrilla fighter to ease the government's grip on life, turning the spotlight on dozens of prisoners jailed for disagreeing with the Castros.

"We haven't exactly asked for an amnesty," visiting Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said when asked if the Holy See had asked for one for political prisoners.

"Freeing prisoners is a positive act that helps toward reconciliation and gives signs of hope," Bertone told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, welcoming the release of four political prisoners earlier this month.

Bertone, who is due to meet with Raul Castro on Tuesday, also criticized the 46-year U.S. economic embargo, which has added to the poverty in which most Cubans live.

Washington again criticized the handing of power between brothers -- which started when Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006 -- and laid out its main issues with the Cuban government.

"We still have a government that believes it's appropriate to keep people held as political prisoners, to deny the population their basic political and human rights and to continue with a system of governance that is fundamentally a dictatorship," said U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey.

Last year, Raul Castro said he could be open to talks with the United States once President George W. Bush leaves office, but on Sunday he only criticized Cuba's superpower neighbour for waging a "real war" against Cuba and its economy.


"Many people expected him to offer an olive branch to the United States and to the European community. Neither of them happened yesterday," said Jaime Suchlicki, the head of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

After Raul Castro's appointment, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel said the European Union would keep working with Cuba on areas like climate change but stepped no further into the debate over democracy.

Raul Castro promised to work on minor reforms to provide more food and improve purchasing power -- issues Cubans complained about in open meetings sponsored by the younger Castro once known for supervising the execution of the revolution's enemies.

But even moderate changes like making the government more efficient, revaluing the peso and lifting some restrictions will take time to churn their way through the machinery.

Analysts say Raul Castro will move cautiously. They urged him to allow more private enterprise in sectors like fishing and car repairs and warned that if his reforms are only superficial, Cubans will grow increasingly frustrated.

The sense that deep change will be slow in coming was enhanced on Sunday when the rubber-stamp National Assembly named orthodox communists and generals who fought alongside the Castros in their 1950s revolution to top government positions.

"This represents a very bleak outlook for Cuba," said Suchlicki of the University of Miami.

For some young people, who have known no other leader than the bearded revolutionary they simply call Fidel, continuity is not too much of a problem.

"The image the people of Cuba have had for nearly 50 years is Fidel and to suddenly change that is a bit difficult," said sociology student Maidolys, 20, hitching a ride to classes.

(Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Miami; writing by Jane Barrett; editing by Michael Christie and Mohammad Zargham)

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