|Raul is slowly coming out from his brother's shadow [AFP]|
Raul Castro, the temporary leader of Cuba, has used a revolution day speech to promise economic reforms. He even put forward an offer of talks with the US once George Bush, the current US president, has left office.
Raul's hour-long speech on Thursday marked the first time his brother and Communist leader, Fidel, had not appeared for Cuba's national day celebrations.
Despite Fidel's withdrawal from the public stage shortly before having intestinal surgery, he has still been seen as the driving force behind government of the country.
But Raul used the speech to show that he is in charge of Cuban affairs. In front of a crowd of about 100,000 people in the city of Camaguey, Raul said the government in Washington had kept up efforts to undermine Cuba since Fidel was ill last July.
He expressed hope that the next US administration would follow a different track.
"If the next US government puts arrogance aside and decides to talk in a civilised fashion, that is welcome," he said.
"If not, we are prepared to continue facing their hostile policy for another 50 years."
He said 80-year-old Fidel was increasingly active in an advisory role and writing editorials for the Communist daily Granma, but Raul's speech left no one in doubt he is in charge for now.
Raul said salaries were too low and called for critical and constructive debate to remove unnecessary bureaucracy from the country's economy, 90 per cent of which is state owned.
"Pay is clearly insufficient to cover people's needs," he said.
He said Cuba plans to allow more foreign investment. It is now more than 10 years since it opened up to foreign capital and tourism to help the economy out of a severe crisis induced by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He warned that reforms and results will take time. But his speech encouraged some Cubans.
Ismael Rodriguez said: "I feel more optimistic. He spoke of bread-and-butter issues, like everyone's right to drink milk."
Raul, 76, is considered more pragmatic than his ideologically driven brother.
|The Moncoda anniversary is |
Cuba's biggest holiday [AFP]
Cuba must produce more food and cut its dependence on imports. Significant reforms of agriculture are on their way, he said.
Raul said it had been a difficult year since his brother fell ill because Cuba's enemies in the US had banked on the collapse of its socialist system.
The Bush administration stepped up an "implacable war" to undermine Cuba with trade and financial sanctions, he said. But Cuba remains stable and united behind the ruling Communist party.
"The new administration will have to decide whether it maintains this absurd, illegal and failed policy against Cuba or accepts the olive branch we extended," he said.
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the US state department, said in response: "The dialogue that needs to happen is in Cuba."
Thursday's ceremony marked the 54th anniversary of Fidel's failed attack on the Moncoda military barracks. Despite that military setback, the day is seen as the beginning of the Communist revolution that saw Castro overthrow Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
While many Cubans are still anxious for Fidel to return, a close ally assured the ailing leader his legacy would live on regardless.
Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, promised his friend that he would continue the Cuban leader's decades-long fight against US imperialism once the ageing revolutionary icon has passed away.
"Fidel, I assume the commitment of continuing your struggle, your endless battle. I assume it. We, your children, assume it," Chavez said on Thursday.