- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Raul Castro, a familiar face in Cuba but still an enigma to many of his countrymen, yesterday emerged at last from his older brother’s giant shadow.

The 76-year-old longtime defense minister will need his trademark baseball cap and tinted glasses as he faces the glare of global scrutiny, at a time when the island is facing critical economic problems and the first transfer of power since the revolution a half-century ago.

Fidel Castro, 81 and weakened by a lingering intestinal illness, yesterday announced he would resign Sunday as Cuba’s president, ending a long authoritarian reign in which he became an international leftist icon and a thorn in the side of Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents alike.

The ailing Mr. Castro ceded “temporary” executive powers to Raul Castro in July 2006.

Fidel Castro’s announcement yesterday, carried in the official state newspaper, significantly did not mention Raul Castro by name and said he was stepping down in part to pass the revolutionary torch to a new “middle-aged generation.”
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    President Bush, who has resisted calls to ease the long economic and diplomatic embargo against Havana, said he saw little prospect for immediate change in Cuba, whichever Castro was in charge.

    “Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections — and I mean free, and I mean fair — not these kinds of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy,” Mr. Bush told reporters while traveling in Rwanda yesterday.

    But other countries hailed the possibility of change in Cuba.

    “Now Raul Castro will be able to take on his reform project with a greater capacity, toughness and confidence,” said Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s secretary of state for Latin America.

    In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the United States will not soon lift its embargo on Cuba despite Mr. Castro’s resignation.

    Asked by reporters if Washington planned to change its Cuba policy, Mr. Negroponte replied: “I can’t imagine that happening any time soon.” He declined further comment.

    Cuba watchers say the younger Mr. Castro has given clear signs he is more open to liberalizing the country’s struggling socialized economy than he is to opening up the one-party, one-man rule Fidel Castro imposed on the island.

    “I would expect Raul’s main focus — at least in the short term — will be change in the economic area, not in politics,” said Peter DeShazo, former Latin American point man for the State Department and now director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Julia Sweig, director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “We’re not going to see Jimmy Carter down there monitoring elections or the [International Monetary Fund] coming to Cuba, but from this moment the clock starts ticking on popular demands for a better material life and for better political options.”

    While never publicly veering far from his more charismatic brother, Raul Castro did back short-lived pro-market reforms in Cuba in the mid-1990s and last summer gave a substantive “State of the Island” address that highlighted a number of sensitive shortcomings in the state-run economy.

    Low salaries and low worker productivity, he admitted, had contributed to “social indiscipline” — a coded reference to the corruption and black markets that have mushroomed in Cuba.

    But where Fidel Castro regularly demanded crackdowns on wrongdoers to preserve the revolution’s purity, Raul Castro said in the speech the system itself shared the blame.

    “We know the tension to which party cadres are subjected, especially at the base, where available resources are almost never enough to cover accumulated needs,” he said.

    Philip Peters, vice president at the Lexington Institute and longtime Cuba watcher, said Raul Castro has already taken a number of liberalizing steps as interim president, easing customs regulations, tripling prices paid to beef and milk producers and ordering police to stop harassing private taxi drivers.

    “It is hard to conceive that a politician in any political system, much less one in Raul Castro’s circumstance today, would embark on raising expectations to this degree if his intentions were not to deliver results,” said Mr. Peters.

    Despite Fidel Castro’s long dominance, the Cuban regime has not been immune to factionalism, with cliques seen loyal to Fidel or Raul. Older, hard-line ideologues — sometimes called the Cuban “Taliban” — have clashed with younger, more technocratic ministers.

    It is not even certain Raul Castro will be named Cuba’s president when Fidel Castro steps down. Reports from Havana said that the mostly ceremonial head of state post might go to Vice President Carlos Lage, though Raul Castro would hold the key levers of power.

    And Fidel Castro’s formal passing from the scene could be the opening bell for a genuine power struggle among his longtime lieutenants.

    Raul Castro was the “clear favorite” to succeed his brother, “but the parallel competition to replace Raul is one of the least understood dynamics within the Cuban government,” according to a recent study by Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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