On July 31, 2006, the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma made public a Proclamation from President Fidel Castro, announcing a temporary transfer of power from Fidel to his brother Raul, who until that time served as a general in the Cuban armed forces and second-in-command of the government and the Communist Party.
The transfer took place due to an acute intestinal problem that required Fidel Castro to undergo surgery. Even though Fidel Castro did not indicate in his proclamation the legal authority he used in order to cede power temporarily to his brother.
Article 94 of the Cuban Constitution provides that in case of the absence, illness, or death of the President of the Council of State (i.e.,Fidel Castro), the First Vice President (i.e., Raul Castro) assumes the President’s duties.
On February 19, 2008, Granma published a message from Fidel Castro in which he announced that, due to his poor health, he could no longer serve as President of Cuba. After Castro resigned, the National Assembly of People’s Power (Cuba’s legislative body) convened in order to elect a new president, which is one of its powers according to the Cuban Constitution.
Raúl Castro Elected Cuba’s New President
On February 24, 2008, the National Assembly of People’s Power elected Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, as president of Cuba’s Councils of State and Ministers. The Council of State acts on behalf of the Assembly (which meets twice a year) when it is not in session. The President of the Council of State is the Head of State and Head of Government. The Council of Ministers is the highest ranking executive and administrative body.
In his inaugural speech, Raul Castro indicated that he intends to confer with Fidel Castro on matters of special relevance for Cuba, especially those pertaining to defense, foreign policy, and the socioeconomic development of the country. In addition, Raul Castro asked the assembly to give him some time to think about who will be the members of his cabinet (except the Defense Minister and the Vice President, who were appointed on February 24, 2008) and, most importantly, to give him some time to analyze the current government system and to consider changes to it, if necessary.
The Assembly approved his proposal and determined that the new cabinet and possible changes to the government system will be discussed in a session that will take place later in the year.
U.S. Engagement Offers
After assuming power, Raúl Castro made several public offers to engage in dialogue that were been rebuffed by U.S. officials who maintain that change in Cuba must precede a change in U.S. policy.
In an August 2006 interview, Raúl asserted that Cuba has “always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane,” but at the same time he expressed strong opposition to current U.S. policy toward Cuba, which he described as “arrogant and interventionist.”
In response, then Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon reiterated a U.S. offer to Cuba, first articulated by President Bush in May 2002, that the Administration was willing to work with Congress to lift U.S. economic sanctions if Cuba were to begin a political opening and a transition to democracy. According to Shannon, the Bush Administration remained prepared to work with Congress for ways to lift the embargo if Cuba is prepared to free political prisoners, respect human rights, permit the creation of independent organizations, and create a mechanism and pathway toward free and fair elections.
Raúl Castro again reiterated an offer to negotiate with the United States in a December 2006 speech. He said that, “we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the longstanding dispute between the United States and Cuba, of course, provided they accept, as we have previously said, our condition as a country that will not tolerate any blemishes on its independence, and as long as said resolution is based on the principles of equality, reciprocity, non-interference, and mutual respect.”
Later, in a July 26, 2007 speech, Raúl reiterated for the third time an offer to engage in dialogue with the U.S., and strongly criticized U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba. This time, Raúl pointed to the future of relations with the next U.S. Administration, and stated that “the new administration will have to decide whether it will keep the absurd, illegal, and failed policies against Cuba, or accept the olive branch that we extended.” He asserted that, “if the new U.S. authorities put aside arrogance and decide to talk in a civilized manner, they will be welcome. If not, we are willing to deal with their hostile policies for another 50 years if necessary.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman responded that “the only real dialogue that’s needed is with the Cuban people.” In the aftermath of Fidel’s announcement that he would step down as head of government, U.S. officials maintained there would be no change in U.S. policy.