- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

HAVANA — Raul Castro doesn’t enjoy his older brother’s appeal, but as he takes over the leadership of communist Cuba, he can count on the power he amassed during a half-century as the island’s No. 2 man.

Even before Monday’s announcement that President Fidel Castro has temporarily relinquished power to his brother while recovering from intestinal surgery, Raul had been emerging from the shadows, appearing prominently in a state media campaign to better acquaint Cubans with the man chosen long ago to be their next leader.

Granma, the Communist Party daily, republished a tribute to Raul, calling him “the chief, the leader, the comrade, the man” who “has brought us great affection and instruction across the decades.”

State television repeatedly has showed the bespectacled minister of the armed forces in his olive green uniform and cap — a head shorter than his brother, beardless with a graying mustache, addressing troops and reviewing military parades.

Fidel said in a statement last night that he is in stable condition and “in perfectly good spirits.”

Even if Raul’s presidency becomes permanent, however, it is seen as unlikely to foreshadow the leap into democracy that U.S. policy envisions for Cuba after Fidel.

While sure to preserve the communist state founded in 1959, Raul has indicated greater flexibility in running the state-controlled economy.

He oversaw experiments with limited market reforms after the Soviet Union’s collapse and on a 1997 visit to China, expressed interest in its free-enterprise socialism. He has also called for more cooperation with the United States on terrorism, drug trafficking and immigration.

The apparent readying of Raul for the succession is a reminder that two of the world’s remaining communist regimes, Cuba and North Korea, are family affairs, in which the public has no real say in who rules them.

Fidel made it clear just three weeks after seizing power that he wanted his brother to succeed him.

“I do it not because he is my brother — the whole world knows how much we hate nepotism — but because on my honor I consider him to have sufficient qualities to replace me tomorrow in case I die in this struggle,” he said in a quote from Jan. 21, 1959, resurrected in the Granma tribute.

In a note read on Cuban television Monday night, Fidel said his health was “ruined” by gastrointestinal bleeding brought on by the stress of recent public appearances. While the note said the transfer was “provisional,” it also said celebrations of his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 will be postponed until December, suggesting that Raul may remain in power for months at least.

At 75, Raul is among the few still alive who were with Fidel 53 years ago when they began the revolution with a military barracks assault.

In the early days, Raul led rebels in Cuba’s eastern mountains. He now leads about 50,000 troops armed with Soviet-era tanks and MiG fighter planes — down from the 180,000 he commanded at the height of the Cold War. He appears to have his generals’ loyalty, and seemed more comfortable chatting and joking with them after a recent military ceremony than he did giving a speech minutes earlier.

In a 2001 interview, he advised the United States to make peace with Cuba in Fidel’s lifetime because afterward “it will be more difficult.”

But yesterday, White House press secretary Tony Snow suggested it made no difference.

“Raul Castro’s attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is much the same as what his brother did,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, a Cuban-American and senior member of the U.S. House International Relations Committee, was harsher. “A skunk is still a skunk, and a dictator is still a dictator,” she said. “There will be no future in a democratic Cuba for the Castro brothers.”

Communist Party leaders insist there will be no transformation, just the succession laid down in the constitution, which says the presidency passes to the first vice president of the Council of State — the position held by Raul.

Even before Fidel’s illness was announced, Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who has studied the Castro brothers for decades, speculated that the transition may already be under way.

“Raul has been asserting personal control over the Communist Party apparatus, highlighting its likely enhanced role in the future,” Mr. Latell wrote. “He has been focusing intense and sympathetic media attention on himself.”

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