- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s reported transfer of power to his brother and anointed successor is an unprecedented sign that a post-Fidel Cuba is faintly visible on the horizon. Beyond that, much is unclear.

About the only certainties at this point are that the Cuban politburo has spent years preparing for the coming succession as the Communist island’s central post-Cold War political event; that the prospects for Cuban democracy continue to be dim; that the United States has reiterated its promise of assistance to a democratic transition should the opportunity arise; and that Fidel’s death — whether it happens today, next month or next year — places the 75-year-old Raul Castro, Fidel’s military chief and regime enforcer, at center stage, at least for the short term.

Much will depend on what kind of ruler Raul becomes — if he can consolidate power at all — after his brother’s death. “It cannot even be said with confidence that Raul will want to be more than a transitional leader,” writes Brian Latell, for years the CIA’s leading Cuba analyst, in “After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader,” published last year. Raul “will not enjoy the pounding pressures and crises that make Fidel’s adrenaline surge and typically induce his best thinking.”

Salient facts about Raul: He is said to lack Fidel’s intelligence and skills of persuasion. He is in better health than his brother but not without his own health liabilities. He has expressed admiration for Communist China’s economic policies in the past and probably figures to emulate some of those policies should he take over.

Raul will face a troubled inheritance and likely face significant opposition. He lacks the confidence of the military that he commands, which is perhaps the most respected institution in Cuba. Should Raul face resistance from the military all bets are off.

It’s worth pointing out that the Cuban military is not trained to put down internal insurrections if an embattled Raul should order it to do so. This prospect will occupy Cuban leaders as a transition nears — as it should American policy-makers.

A transition to a post-Fidel authoritarian regime, perhaps one which takes cues from Communist China, is probably what Raul wants. In a war-gaming exercise at the University of Miami in February, Duncan Currie reported in the Weekly Standard magazine, top U.S. Cuba analysts enacting post-Fidel scenarios chose not to dwell on the possibility of a democratic Cuba emerging from Fidel’s death. This seems about right. Courageous and long-suffering as the opposition may be, Cuba has no equivalent of the powerful Solidarity movement that undid Polish communism. Raul Castro hardly seems a candidate to be Cuba’s Mikhail Gorbachev.

None of this means there is no hope for democracy. “We will not accept a succession process that merely shifts the chairs on the deck of the titanic,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and stalwart supporter of Cuban democracy, wrote yesterday: “The Cuban people deserve more from us. We will not let them down.” The coming weeks and months will test that resolve.

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