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One Year After Handover, Castros Retain Hold in Cuba

One year ago, an illness forced Cuban leader Fidel Castro to hand over power to his brother, Raul, ending his 47-year hold on the presidency. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that while the leadership may have changed, many of Cuba's policies remain intact.

Opponents of Fidel Castro have been longing for change in the Communist nation for decades. When Castro underwent intestinal surgery last year, critics said it was a chance for the new leadership to begin lifting Cuba's repressive policies and open the door to reform.

Andy Gomez, assistant provost at the University of Miami, says Cuban officials have been preparing for the transfer of power since Fidel named his brother, Raul, as his designated replacement a decade ago. Gomez says Cuban officials have worked hard in recent months to ensure the succession did not threaten the Communist government.

"There is stability, there has been a high level of security, and the economy has continued to increase," Gomez said. "So the few remaining institutions in Cuba, the military, the Communist party have continued to function."

The reality has disappointed those who anticipated widespread changes in Cuba without Fidel in the presidency. Some analysts expected the government to begin lifting economic and political restrictions, and others predicted social upheaval.

In a speech last week, acting president Raul Castro chided the United States about those predictions.

He said Cuba has experienced difficulty in recent months, but the outcome has not fulfilled the predictions of Cuba's enemies. He said the nation's enemy expected chaos and the downfall of Cuban socialism.

One reason that Cuba's government has remained stable and conditions on the island are mostly unchanged is because Fidel Castro continues to exert influence on his brother and other areas of the government. He also has met with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Chinese officials, who are key supporters of the Cuban regime.

Experts say it is unclear how long Fidel, who turns 81 next month, can do so, with his health in decline.

For pro-democracy activists, like Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Miami-based Democracy Movement, the status quo in Cuba is a disappointment.

He says Raul Castro has shown no signs of reform or the will to open a national dialogue about the country's problems. Sanchez adds that repression against dissidents has worsened under Raul.

Sanchez says that while Cuba's government remains intact, he has noted changes in U.S. rhetoric toward the island. Last week, a U.S. State Department spokesman rejected a call from Raul Castro for possible dialogue between the two nations, and said Cuba first must open talks with opposition groups on the island.

Sanchez said the comment marks a change from the past, when U.S. officials sought to lead the debate with Cuba's government, and he says the move is a boost to democracy efforts on the island.

He said hearing the United States tell Castro that he should hold talks with his own people and not with Washington is the start of a new era of mutual respect between the two nations.

U.S. officials say their policies remain the same toward Cuba under Raul Castro, and say they will renew diplomatic ties with the island only after it meets conditions, such as holding free elections. The University of Miami's Andy Gomez says such a vote is needed, regardless of the results.

"The Cuban people have the right to choose what it is they want," Gomez said. "We are going to have to respect what they choose because it might not be what most of us [in the United States] want."

Cuba is set to open a new round of one-party elections in October. Critics say past votes have been meaningless and posed no real challenge to the Castro brothers or the government's rule. Experts say real transformation in Cuba will happen only when Fidel Castro has died.