Camaguey, Cuba Waving miniature Cuban flags and screaming "Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" an estimated 100,000 loyalists crammed the plaza to hear the country's only four-star general and acting president, Raul Castro, for the first time preside over ceremonies marking the start of the Cuban Revolution.
In a one-hour speech, Raul Castro acknowledged the economy has failed to meet the needs of the working people and signaled the need for unspecified "structural changes."
"No one country can afford to spend more than what they have," he said during a ceremony peppered with praise for his convalescing older brother, Fidel. "To have more, we have to begin by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency."
Raul Castro's first major policy address since taking power came exactly one year after Fidel Castro's last public appearances, when the longtime Cuban president gave speeches in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Holguin. Five days later, in a statement read on television, Fidel Castro announced he had to undergo emergency surgery and ceded the presidency, the leadership of the Communist Party and military responsibilities to his younger brother.
"We could hardly suspect what a hard blow was awaiting us," Raul Castro said, appearing comfortable in the leadership role his brother had occupied for more than 47 years.
"These have truly been very difficult months, although with a diametrically different impact to that expected by our enemies, who were wishing for chaos to take hold and for Cuban socialism to collapse," he said, referring to the predictions of the United States.
Castro also reiterated his willingness to open discussions with the U.S., 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."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack responded: "The only real dialogue that's needed is with the Cuban people."
Before the program, Raul Castro smiled and waved a miniature Cuban flag, occasionally chatting with members of his government and local officials. There were musical and poetic tributes to Fidel Castro, who likely watched on television from his convalescent headquarters in Havana.