HAVANA, Cuba – Cuba's parliament named Raul Castro president on Sunday, ending nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but leaving the island's communist system unshaken. In a surprise move, an old guard revolutionary leader was named No. 2, suggesting that major changes are not likely anytime soon.
The retirement of the ailing 81-year-old president caps a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him.
Raul Castro stressed that his brother remains "commander in chief" even if he is not president by proposing to consult with Fidel on all major decisions of state — a motion approved by acclamation.
Jose Ramon Machado, who fought alongside the Castro brothers in the Sierra Maestra during the late 1950s, was named to the No. 2 slot that Raul Castro had previously held. He is 76 years old, like Raul Castro.
Cabinet secretary Carlos Lage, who many had expected would move up into the first vice president slot, maintained his spot as one of five other vice presidents on the governing Council of State.
The other four vice presidents included Juan Almeida Bosque, 80, a historic revolutionary leader; Interior Minister Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 68; Esteban Lazo Hernandez, 63, a longtime Communist Party leader, and Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 71, who was Raul Castro's No. 2 at the Defense Ministry.
The council secretary remained Dr. Jose M. Miyar Barrueco, 75, physician and historic revolutionary leader, and longtime aide to Fidel Castro and Council of State.
Castro's seat in the National Assembly was empty, but as the new National Assembly's 614 members were read aloud, mention of the absent Castro drew a standing ovation.
The transition was likely to bring few major policy shifts by the communist government, but many Cubans have expressed hope it would open the door to modest economic openings and an improvement in their daily lives.
With Sunday's vote, Castro's 49 years as head of a communist state in America's backyard came to an end. He retains his post as a lawmaker and is head of Cuba's Communist Party, but his power in the government has eroded since July 31, 2006, when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers.
The younger Castro has headed Cuba's caretaker government in the 19 months since then, and Fidel Castro has not appeared in public.
The National Assembly, whose members were elected to five-year terms on Jan. 20, chose a new, 31-member Council of State and its president, who serves as the country's head of state and government.
Fidel Castro has held the position since the current government structure was created in 1976. For 18 years before that, he was prime minister — a post that no longer exists.
In a first round of voting Sunday, Ricardo Alarcon was re-elected as president of the National Assembly, effectively removing him as a dark horse candidate for the presidency.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a statement shortly before parliament met, calling the developments a "significant moment in Cuba's history," but saying Cubans have a right "to choose their leaders in democratic elections."
She also urged the Cuban government to "to begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights, and creating a clear pathway towards free and fair elections."
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, a close friend of Castro, said the leadership change in Havana was "occurring without any type of trauma."
"Transition in Cuba?" asked Chavez, whose country is now a major economic ally of Cuba. "The transition occurred 49 years ago, from that capitalism, dominiated by imperialism, (under which Cuba) was a colony, to a socialist Cuba. The transition will continue marching forward, always with Fidel at the forefront."