- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

Two months ago, the official Cuban Communist Party daily Granma published a long, warm front-page profile to mark the 75th birthday of the country’s notoriously publicity-shy defense minister, Raul Castro.

The younger brother and comrade-in-revolutionary-arms of Cuban “Maximum Leader” Fidel Castro, Raul was said by the article’s authors to be “modest in his personal interactions,” distrustful of “unilateral assessments,” a doting father and grandfather, and an “organized, disciplined, systematic and demanding” administrator — all qualities rarely, if ever, attributed to his more charismatic older brother.

A puff piece, perhaps, but it is from such tea leaves and star charts that an army of forecasters both inside Cuba and beyond are now trying to divine the island’s future, following the bombshell announcement last week that a seriously ailing Fidel Castro had “temporarily” ceded power to Raul for the first time since taking power in 1959.

In a historic statement read on Cuban television Monday night, Fidel Castro wrote that he had undergone emergency surgery to stem an “intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding” provoked by his rigorous schedule. The bearded leader stated that he would need to recuperate for several weeks.

Mr. Castro was well enough to be eating and sitting up, government sources told Reuters news agency yesterday. But the longtime leader remained out of sight, as did his brother.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said yesterday Fidel Castro “has recovered” from stomach surgery, according to another Reuters report. “What is now lacking is that he return to running the country,” Mr. Morales said in a speech to Bolivian lawmakers. He did not elaborate.

Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, who attended Mr. Morales’ speech in Sucre, Bolivia, during an official visit, yesterday confirmed that Mr. Castro had stomach surgery, but he denied a Brazilian newspaper report that the Cuban leader is suffering from stomach cancer.

“Fidel has had to confront an operation and is recovering favorably. He does not have cancer,” Mr. Lage said.

When asked by reporters when Mr. Castro might resume power, Mr. Lage said, “Well, in several weeks.”

Cuba’s Soviet-style regime and Mr. Castro’s one-man rule have spawned a veritable cottage industry of studies attempting to predict who and what will replace the dictator when he dies.

Personnel changes, Fidel Castro’s own musings on his mortality, the tone and timing of press stories such as the Raul Castro profile — all are grist for the mill.

The Bush administration and the ardently anti-Castro Cuban-American community openly hope the prospect of the leader’s death may signal the death of his revolution as well, opening the way for political and economic reforms long opposed by Fidel Castro.

President Bush has approved an $80 million program to promote a democratic succession in Cuba, and he warned Thursday that the U.S. government would “take note of those” in the current regime who stand in the way.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that “the imposition of Raul Castro” as Cuba’s next leader would “deny the Cuban people of their right to freely elect their government.”

But with Cuba’s domestic dissident community seen as weak and divided, and with the Cuban regime’s army and main security agencies well entrenched, many analysts are betting against a radical break in the near term.

“For years, the passing of Fidel Castro due to natural causes was thought to pose the ‘biological solution’ to Cuba’s long hiatus from democratic rule,” said Daniel P. Erickson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue. “Now it is becoming apparent that the answers may not be so simple.”

Jaime Suchlicki, a longtime Cuba watcher who teaches history at the University of Miami’s School of International Studies, said new economic links to China, Iran and Venezuela give any post-Castro communist regime the ability — at least in the short term — to defy pressure at home and from Washington to liberalize.

“We want concessions, and Raul is not going to give the U.S. any quid pro quo, especially at a time when he is consolidating power,” Mr. Suchlicki said. “If he takes any initiative now, domestic or international, he risks altering the power of the elite governing Cuba.”

While U.S. officials say any transfer of power from one Castro to another would be illegitimate, Raul Castro — the world’s longest-serving defense minister, as well as first vice president of Cuba’s Council of State, vice president of the Council of Ministers, second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, and now acting president — has both a constitutional and a fraternal claim to the top job.

Fidel Castro in numerous statements has endorsed his brother as his successor, and there are few signs that any of Fidel’s six sons are being groomed for political power.

“Everybody knows we hate nepotism here, but I honestly think Raul has the sufficient qualities to substitute for me in case I die in this battle,” the elder Mr. Castro once said.

Raul Castro’s political base in the Cuban army should serve him well. While kept under close supervision by Fidel Castro, current and former military officers head about a third of the government ministries and more than half of the major state-controlled industries.

But at 75 years old and possessing a reputation for ruthlessness dating back to his days as a commander in Fidel’s rebel army, Raul Castro is not expected to be around to chart Cuba’s course for more than a short time. His failure to appear in public since his older brother’s illness was revealed Monday has only fueled speculation about his future.

Mart Laar, prime minister of Estonia when the small Baltic republic broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, said last week the Cuban transfer from one aging revolutionary to another brought to mind the succession of elderly rulers in the Soviet Union before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

“Looking at Cuba, I am reminded of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s when there was a parade of elders, with power handed from one dying leader to another,” he told the Agence France-Presse news service.

Others speak hopefully of a more benign transition, such as those achieved by Estonia and other East European states after the Soviet collapse, or the steady transition to democracy achieved by Spain after the death of rightist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But Mr. Suchlicki said Cuba’s military leaders have been closely studying a much different succession model: post-Mao China, where the Communist Party was able to implement major economic reforms while keeping an iron grip on political power.

As with old Kremlinologists, Cuba specialists can point to the key players to watch in a post-Fidel succession, but handicapping who will ultimately dominate after Mr. Castro’s demise is a much more difficult task.

By most accounts, a trio of figures representing three distinct camps — hard-liners, known in Spanish as “duros,” centrists and so-called reformers — stand just below Raul Castro in the political pecking order. They are Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque; National Assembly head Ricardo Alarcon; and Mr. Lage, Council of State vice president.

Despite being a generation younger than the revolutionary old guard, Mr. Perez Roque is widely seen as a leader of the “duros,” a true believer from the days when he was hired as Mr. Castro’s personal secretary at the age of 21. Hard-liners dominate the powerful Ministry of the Interior and the Cuban Communist Party leadership and favor preservation of Mr. Castro’s total monopoly on power.

Despite his brutal record, Raul Castro is often linked with Mr. Alarcon among the centrists, who back limited economic liberalization while maintaining a tight hold on political power. Mr. Alarcon is considered the Cuban leader most familiar with the United States, having served as Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations and as point man on bilateral issues such as the Elian Gonzalez custody case.

Mr. Lage has remained in the leadership mix despite Fidel Castro’s rejection of many of the economic reforms he spearheaded in the 1990s. Several other reputed reformers — including former Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina — have been purged from top jobs in recent years as Fidel Castro demanded a return to socialist orthodoxy.

There are many who feel that the emotional shock of Fidel Castro’s death will prove a far bigger blow to the Cuban system than anticipated, one that could sweep away the regime’s hopes for a smooth transition.

“No one in the regime has been allowed to have a Plan B,” said Roger Noriega, former Latin American point man in the State Department and now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Noriega said Mr. Castro’s decision to relinquish power, even temporarily, was a major blow to his mystique.

“No one has given any thought to what really happens after Castro. The thugs in the inner circle have deluded themselves into thinking they can sustain this,” he said.

Ironically, Fidel Castro himself has wondered openly in recent days whether his revolution will survive his passing. The dictator has declared a national “Battle of Ideas,” designed to combat growing doubts and cynicism about the regime.

During a four-hour speech he gave last November to refute reports that he was ill, he said the greatest threat to the regime came not from abroad but from a lack of ideological commitment at home.

“This country can self-destruct. This revolution can destroy itself,” he said. The United States “cannot destroy it, but we can and it would be our fault.”

• Sharon Behn contributed to this report.

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