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Communist Party crowned Cuba’s true leader in moves shoring up its power with collegial rule

HAVANA – Raul Castro may be president, but the real change in Cuba is from mostly one-man to broader Communist Party rule.

Since Fidel Castro is too sick to micromanage now, the party will do it, using ideologues in key positions and the innumerable tentacles of a party structure reaching into virtually every sector of society and using its mass organizations to woo the island’s 11.2 million people.

The idea of Cuba’s bearded revolutionary leader being replaced by legions of party clones was illustrated on the front page of the Communist Youth newspaper Sunday.

Under the heading “Cuba post-Castro,” the cartoon showed rows and rows of gun-toting Fidel Castros. “Now, and in the future, the Revolution needs many Fidels,” the caption read.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, many in Washington and the Cuban exile community predicted that Cuba’s complicated Communist Party structure would crumble, but the party has gradually recovered its power in recent years. The parliament session that chose Cuba’s new leadership Sunday was a coronation of sorts.

Days after Fidel Castro said he wouldn’t accept another term as president, lawmakers named Raul Castro to replace him and chose a top party ideologue, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, as the island’s No. 2. The choice was a surprise to many hoping for a younger, reform-minded figure.

That was reflected in the vote. While most leadership positions were elected unanimously, Machado Ventura won with what in Cuba counts as just squeaking by. He got votes from 601 of the 609 lawmakers present.

The rest of the 31 seats on the ruling Council of State also reflected the party’s prominence. Seats went to leaders of the system’s five top mass organizations, whose millions of members form the party’s pillars of support. The Revolutionary Armed Forces, the firepower behind the party, also expanded its council representation with two key generals.

The new council makeup seemed aimed at assuring revolutionary old-timers that no significant political changes are planned. That troubles some, particularly activists like Oswaldo Paya, who has sought a referendum on civil and political rights.

“The directing force in society should be the sovereign people, not the Communist Party,” Paya wrote Monday in a statement to international news media. “The succession of Fidel Castro did not bring the changes the people wanted and needed.”

In accepting the presidency, Raul Castro made clear he was not filling his brother’s shoes alone, saying that the entire party was poised to inherit Fidel’s political power. The party “is the sole worthy heir,” he said.

Raul Castro pointed out that his brother remained the party chief as its first secretary – a post that can only be changed during a Communist Party congress, and that carries great political influence. The last congress was in 1997 and none is scheduled.

Raul also made clear that Fidel remains Cuba’s commander in chief, and reserved the right to consult with him on major state decisions.

While no major political changes appear to be planned, Raul said his top priority was improving standards of living with measures such as greater food production and a revaluation of the Cuban peso that would make goods cheaper for average people.

Some experts said Machado Ventura, 77, might not end up being as hard-line as some believe.

“By his reputation, one would expect him to oppose an economic opening,” Cuba analyst Phil Peters wrote of Machado Ventura in his blog, The Cuban Triangle.

“On the other hand, if reforms are in store and he is in favor, then his election is a sign of consensus, across generations and ideological tendencies. As they say in the mutual fund business, past earnings are not a guarantee of future performance.”

Anita Snow has been the chief of The Associated Press bureau in Havana since 1999.

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