McFeatters: End of Cuba's Castro era is in sight

Cuba's President Raul Castro participates in the closure

Cuba's President Raul Castro participates in the closure session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba. (Feb. 24, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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Raul Castro was rubber-stamped Sunday into another term as Cuba's president. He says this term will be his last and that he will retire in 2018.

In 54 years, Cubans have had only two presidents -- not that they had much choice in the matter -- Raul, 81, and his ailing older brother, Fidel, 86, the country's long-serving dictator who stepped aside for Raul only when ill health forced him to.

Bypassing an entire generation of aging Castroites, Raul named Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, as his new first vice president and heir apparent. Diaz-Canel replaces Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 81, who fought alongside the Castros in the Cuban revolution.


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Raul praised Machado Ventura for his patriotism and selflessness in making way for Diaz-Canel, although voluntarily relinquishing power has not been a hallmark of the Castros' Cuba.

Raul told a gathering of legislative leaders that he plans to establish two-term limits for Cuba's top political offices and establish age limits for holding those offices. These may be well-intentioned reforms, but they would also assure that no future leaders challenge the Castro brothers for their place in Cuba's history books.

Raul reiterated his commitment "to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism," but while in office he nibbled at the edges of Cuba's pervasive state socialism, allowing certain types of private businesses and real estate ownership, and easing travel restrictions.

Those steps were small and slow in coming, but at least they were in the right direction if Cuba is ever to gain a modicum of prosperity.

Diaz-Canel, an electrical engineer by training, is a former minister of higher education and headed the Communist Party in two provinces. He learned quickly when a charismatic patron of his was dumped by the Castros that the better part of valor was to be neither seen nor heard. He apparently excels in backroom politics, a skill he will need because, while Raul sees him as the heir apparent, it's a safe bet that a lot of Cuban politicians, their ambitions bottled up by the long rule of the Castros, do not.

Meanwhile, Raul could celebrate his second term and indicate his desire for friendly relations with the U.S. by releasing Alan Gross, 63, a USAID contractor who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for illegally bringing communications equipment onto the island.

Gross' crime was apparently trying to link Cuba's small Jewish community to other Jewish communities by providing Internet connections. Most of the civilized world does not see this as a crime and neither should Cuba.

Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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