Raul Castro, centre, attended his first rally as Cuban president [AFP]

Raul Castro, the Cuban president, has led hundreds of thousands of Cubans at a rally in the capital, Havana, in his first May Day appearance since taking over the presidency from his brother, Fidel.

The International Workers Day celebrations come amid a series of changes, allowing Cubans to buy electronic goods, stay in hotels and giving them an increase in social security payments.

Workers waved Cuban flags and posters of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the late Argentine-Cuban revolutionary leader, and banners reading "Unity, Firmness and Victory".

Castro, 76, replaced his ailing brother Fidel, 81, as president on a permanent basis in February, having acted as the Cuban leader since July 2006 when Fidel fell ill.

However, Fidel Castro remains active in politics and still writes a column in the Communist party newspaper.

Salvador Valdes, leader of Cuba's Workers' Union, the only union in the one-party state, told the rally: "Let us ratify our decision to continue on the path set out by the founder of the Cuban revolution, comrade Fidel [Castro]."

Changing Cuba

Some Cubans had hoped that Raul Castro would use the occasion to announce more social and economic changes.

On Sunday, Raul Castro said he would raise state pensions by up to 20 per cent and increase wages for judicial workers and prosecutors.

The new president also recently lifted restrictions for Cubans on mobile phones and other electronics and is allowing farmers to use government land.

"Yes, there must be changes, but changes by themselves are nothing," a 20-year-old teaching student named Fran Garcia told AP.

"We have to work more, prepare more."