CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) – Raul Castro said Thursday that Cuba has avoided the collapse the U.S. predicted when his brother Fidel fell ill a year ago, and signaled he was willing to talk with a new American administration after President Bush leaves power.
The acting president said the island suffered “a hard blow” when Fidel relinquished power last year, but he focused more on the future while addressing tens of thousands of loyalists celebrating Cuba’s Revolution Day.
“These have truly been difficult moments, although with a diametrically different impact than that expected by our enemies, who wished for chaos to take hold and for Cuban socialism to collapse,” Raul Castro said. “Senior U.S. officials even made statements about taking advantage of this scenario to destroy the revolution.”
Fidel, who turns 81 next month, addressed crowds in two cities last July 26, then disappeared from the public eye. He has not been seen publicly since, announcing five days later that he was ceding power to Raul after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery.
Recuperating in an undisclosed location, Fidel has looked stronger in official photographs and videos, but is apparently still too sick to appear in public. In April, he began writing essays known as “Reflections of the Commander in Chief” every few days.
Cuba “could hardly even suspect what a hard blow was awaiting us” when his brother was last seen exactly a year ago, Raul told the crowd in this city of narrow colonial streets southeast of Havana.
“Despite our deep sorrow, no task was left undone,” he said. “There is order in the country and a lot of work.”
Washington’s 45-year-old embargo prohibits U.S. tourists from visiting the island and chokes off nearly all trade between both countries. Raul called the Bush administration “erratic and dangerous,” but said he would be open to discussing improved relations after a new president takes over following next year’s elections.
“If the new United States authorities would finally desist from their arrogance and decide to converse in a civilized manner, it would be a welcome change,” he said.
The younger Castro’s government is still officially provisional but has begun to take on an air of permanence. In his essays, Fidel seems in little hurry to return to power although Raul suggested Thursday his brother still weighs in on key decisions.
“Not even during the most serious moments of his illness, did he fail to bring his wisdom and experience to each problem and essential decision,” the acting president said.
With his characteristic frankness, Raul acknowledged Cuba suffers from numerous problems that require “structural changes” he did not detail. He singled out government salaries, which average about $16 a month and fail to cover basic needs, even in a communist society where food, rent, education and health care are heavily subsidized.
But he emphasized Cuba must increase production and reduce reliance on foreign imports, saying “no country has the luxury of spending more than it has.”
Raul spoke for an hour without deviating from his prepared text, stopping only occasionally to acknowledge the crowd.
Camaguey, Cuba’s third-largest city and the provincial capital of a major milk- and beef-producing region, was chosen to host this year’s Revolution Day celebration because of its social and economic achievements. Tens of thousands of people, many wearing red T-shirts and waving miniature Cuban flags, filled the main plaza of red-tile paths and towering palm trees.
Other top leaders wished Fidel well and said he was at the event in spirit.
Some in the crowd said it was more important for Fidel to get better than to give a lengthy speech.
“Raul converses well with the people and that gives us a special lift,” said Gilberto Guerrero, a retired 74-year-old sugar cane worker who arrived before dawn.
“There’s so much happening in the world, but Raul speaks directly to the people of Cuba.”
The July 26, 1953 attack by the Castro brothers and a ragtag band on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago quickly degenerated into disaster. Many rebels were shot dead during the fighting or captured and slaughtered a short time later by Cuban forces.
But the revolutionary movement it gave birth to gained new strength and eventually toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista more than five years later.
Carlos Abreu, 65, a retired airport employee, was 18 when the revolution triumphed.
“There was so much happiness that day. But there was even more anticipation,” he said. “They built a country for the poor, not for the rich. There are very few countries like that in the world.”