CAMAGUEY, Cuba &
Interim President Raul Castro told tens of thousands celebrating Cuba's revolution today that the nation suffered a serious blow when his brother, Fidel, fell ill a year ago, but the chaos the United States had long predicted never materialized.
Cuba's 76-year-old acting president and defense minister took his brother's place at Revolution Day festivities in Camaguey, a provincial capital of narrow colonial streets southeast of Havana.
"We could hardly have suspected what a hard blow was awaiting us," the younger Castro said of Fidel's illness. "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."
The one-hour speech came exactly a year after Fidel's last public appearances, when he celebrated the Revolution Day anniversary with speeches in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Holguin. After 12 months at the helm, Raul's provisional leadership gained further airs of permanence as he delivered the keynote address for the island's top holiday.
Fidel, who turns 81 next month, has for decades given speeches lasting hours to mark the day. But he apparently has been too sick to appear in person after announcing on July 31, 2006, that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to step aside in favor of Raul.
He has begun penning essays dubbed "Reflections of the Commander in Chief" every few days, but appears to be in little hurry to return to power.
Raul, with his characteristic frankness, acknowledged that Cuba suffers from numerous problems that require "structural changes," especially government salaries that fail to cover workers' needs. He said authorities were studying salaries and other issues, but advised that production must improve before wages can increase.
"No country has the luxury of spending more than it has," he said, adding that Cuba must depend more on its own production and less on imports, especially food and milk.
The acting president noted that the National Assembly had moved to resolve some food production problems, straightening out back payments to farmers and cooperatives and significantly increasing how much it pays meat and milk producers.
Raul Castro is seen as a pragmatist, willing to discuss improving relations with Washington, whose 45-year-old embargo prohibits U.S. tourists from visiting and chokes off almost all trade between both countries.
Today, he again signaled his openness to talks with American officials, saying if the next U.S. administration after the 2008 election "desists from their arrogance and decides to converse in a civilized manner, it would be a welcome change."
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack responded coolly to the comments.
"The only real dialogue that's needed is with the Cuban people," McCormack said in Washington. "If the Cuban people were able to express their opinion on the question of whether or not they would like to freely choose their leaders, the answer would be yes.
"Unfortunately that's not a dialogue that is taking place in Cuba at the moment."
As the sun rose over Camaguey, about 100,000 people filled a plaza of red-tile paths and green grass flanked by towering palm trees. Red and black flags symbolizing the holiday hung from ever floor of a nearby apartment building.
Many people wore red T-shirts and waved miniature Cuban flags over their heads during the ceremony. "Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" they screamed. Speaker after speaker spoke about Fidel, celebrating his life, repeating that he was attending the celebration in spirit and wishing him well.
But it was hard to find much disappointment that the elder Castro failed to show up.
"Raul converses well with the people and that gives us a special lift," said Gilberto Guerrero, a retired 74-year-old sugar cane worker.
"I am certain Fidel is recovering but there's no problem because we have Raul," said Candida Alvarez, a 76-year-old retiree who hung red, white and blue Cuban flags from the front door of her wooden home near Camaguey's historic center.
"Fidel will always be the boss, but now Raul is the boss too," she added. "He's been there for a year and has gained popularity, earned the warmth of the people."
The ceremony held this year in Camaguey, Cuba's third-largest city, marks the July 26, 1953, attack by both Castros and a ragtag rebel band on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
The uprising quickly degenerated into a disaster and many rebels were shot to death in the chaotic fighting or captured and killed by government forces. But it became a rallying cry for a subsequent revolutionary movement that gained new strength and eventually toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.
Castro: U.S. prediction of chaos didn't occur
CAMAGUEY, Cuba &