Ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is not dead, but he is no longer president.
Unlike other authoritarian regimes, Cuba already has the transition scoped out and the successor appointed: Castro's younger brother and Cuba's defense minister, Raul Castro. It's in Cuba's constitution. Most people inside and outside Cuba give the younger Castro brother good marks for handling the transition — so far. The question is how will he handle the inevitable calls for reform.
While there is often discussion and gossip both inside and outside Cuba about who among the next level of officials — Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon — might succeed Fidel Castro, U.S. officials insist that Raul Castro remains the key to any succession. In addition to being the constitutionally designated successor to his brother, the 76-year-old Raul Castro is viewed as a a reluctant leader, one who is "always the better administrator ... a good manager, not a great thinker," an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News.
In several wide-ranging interviews over the past decade, U.S. officials from both the diplomatic and intelligence services describe a Raul Castro regime as one having a "very, very different character with a need for a support base," a base that they say is already in place and is both extremely loyal to him and competent. In each case, officials would speak only in return for anonymity.
"Raul is a reluctant, unpopular leader," said one intelligence official in discussing the need for such a support base. "He has prospered by being his brother's brother, surrounded by those who he sees as competent and loyal. He is the chairman of the board of this new team, more of an orchestrator.
"The consensus is that there is a team there and they know what they are doing." Yet, say officials, there is nothing on the horizon that is "leading to long-term revival of a discredited regime."
A Raul Castro regime would not abandon the Marxist revolution — Raul Castro was a Marxist before his brother — but is likely to be more pragmatic at least on economic reforms. However, any transition from Fidel to Raul would also be marked by jockeying for power to be Raul's successor. Even before this recent crisis, Perez Roque was seen as trying to undermine Alarcon. Other such disputes would no doubt surface.
'Raul will seek consensus'
Still, a Raul Castro regime would be different.
"Raul will seek consensus. He built the party, built the military and built the government. He is Mr. Cadre, Mr. Personnel, Mr. Talent Scout," said one intelligence official who has tracked Cuban affairs and is now a senior intelligence official.
It has been Raul Castro, as the man in charge of the UJC — the Young Communist Union — who has acted as a talent scout for his brother, spotting people like Lage, the Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, and dozens of others from ministers to provincial secretaries to ambassadors along with others who did not work out and were pushed into meaningless jobs.
Neither brother, say U.S. officials, has great loyalty to even long-time allies: If you don't produce, you are more than likely replaced by a much younger person. And that should be the lesson in looking at succession. A decade ago, there was a house-cleaning of provincial secretaries, and each replacement was a younger person, in their thirties and forties. Moreover, says officials, while Perez Roque is now the most prominent of the younger cadre of officials, the Cuban political landscape is littered with those who did not fulfill their potential, at least in the Castro brothers' eyes.
The transition between Castro brothers, says a senior U.S. intelligence official who has tracked Cuba for more than a decade, is more likely to have been planned for a while and timed for the opening of the National Assemby — and the election of Council of State this weekend.
"This is a time that makes sense," he said. ""They may be thinking 'We have seen Phase 1 work pretty well, now lets then begin phase 2 with the old man still alive.' This is a convenient signpost for him to step back. it's orderly, he's still around as a soldier of the revolution. He may not be doing so as president or commander in chief of the army, but he is still around."
Officials say the most important "Raulistas" are two members of Fidel Castro's cabinet: Lage and Sugar Minister/former army chief Ulysses Rosales del Toro. They are most responsible for making the tattered Cuban economy work and are described as "exceedingly loyal" to Raul Castro, as well as the revolution.
However, say officials, there is little to distinguish between those believed to be loyal to Fidel — "Fidelistas" — vs. "Raulistas," something the CIA thought it could determine and use to its advantage in the first decade after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
"We did an exercise," said one U.S. intelligence official. "A graphic representation of who is close to Fidel and who is close to Raul. And we determined that it can't be done. The circles [of the two men's loyalists] so closely meet they are essentially the same. There are no serious outsiders who might come to power outside those closely matched circles."
Transition of power looms
But the long, public display of vulnerability by Fidel Castro made talk of a transition much more than academic.
In the short term, Raul Castro is the only transition figure that matters. "Raul Castro's portfolio is already extensive," said a diplomatic official. "The day-to-day running of things is very much his. Are there disagreements between the brothers? Raul reintroduced the agricultural reforms that Fidel has killed off ... Persuasion is his way of dealing with Fidel. Fidel can be persuaded. Raul talks to Fidel, laying out the benefits of reform."
But while an economic reformer, he is not a political reformer. "On the economy, he is pragmatic, but on political reform, his attitude is that we will crush them like roaches, a tough line. But he has also said that Cuba can't shut itself off from the world and not a single reform that he has instituted has been reversed."
While Raul Castro has been seen a lot recently, it is not likely to mean much, say U.S. officals. He often will disappear and reappear in the public consciousness. The buildup in Raul Castro's image happens from time to time, and with his recent 75th birthday in May 2006, it happened again. As it did on his 70th birthday, mention of him on his 75th birthday tried to portray him as avuncular, charming and vigorous. One problem for Raul, however, is his wife's death late last year. Vilma Espina, an MIT trained engineer and a hardliner as well, was his political advisor. There are less reliable reports of his own poor health.
In each of these more recent buildups, Cuba's image makers have tried to change Raul Castro's image to make him more human because early in his career, he was viewed as the ultimate hardliner, his brother's enforcer. Officials note that in some circles in Cuba, he remains an exceptionally unpopular man because he has so much blood on his hands, starting with the post-revolutionary firing sqauds. Espina, who attended MIT but did not graduate, was portrayed by the Miami Cubans as a Marie Antoinette character, which is not entirely false.
"In the U.S., Raul Castro is the bad guy, but when you actually meet him, he's the more human of the two, the more Cuban," said one official who has met him. "He jokes, he brags about his children and grandchildren. He sings, he dances, he drinks apperitifs. He smokes: local populares in public, Marlboro Lights in private. He is more of a talker, a glad hander.
"He is also the more pragmatic, the biggest reformer. He has attacked 'sugar-coated' reports from provincial secretaries."
Raul 'makes no secret of his family'
And many Cubans will tell you they have often seen Raul driving through Havana with the windows of his limousine down.
He places competence and loyalty on the same level as ideology, say officials.
"This is a guy who makes no secret of his family, unlike his brother. It was Raul who actually built the army, the Communist Party. He's the institution builder. The key generals are clearly deferential to Raul, but he listens to them. He talks about subordinates in ways Fidel does not. He has experience in problem-solving. In his relationship with his brother, he is the persuader, but he does not always get his way. He will sometimes sulk about it."
What the military has become is an example for the rest of the society. "You do see some guys who're serving as ministers — communications, sugar, transportation." Raul Castro believes that civilians have a great deal to learn from the military: "What he said was in the military when we give order, it is carried out."
While it is not a militarized society, large parts of the society are now run by the military, like hotels and tourist airlines. The Youth Labor Army, some 65,000 troops assigned to various jobs that need doing, particularly in agriculture, is typical of his efforts to get things moving, bringing in food to the cities to keep the markets full.
Raul and the U.S.
As for dealings with the U.S., Raul Castro as defense minister is as hardline as his brother, but he often makes Miami Cubans as the enemy. In 1996, for example, at a time of great tension following the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, Raul Castro blamed the Miami Cubans, not the U.S., saying "Some sinister groups are trying to lead Cuba and the United States into a major conflict whose consequences are unpredictable... We suspect that the tension between the two countries — which has reached very dangerous levels over the past few months — constitutes the tip of a filthy, political, conspiratorial iceberg directed not only against Cuba but mainly against the most liberal and advanced ideas of that great nation."
And it has been Raul Castro that has managed the relationship between Cuba and America's two biggest adversaries: Russia and China.
"He made the missile deal with Khrushkhev, although with very specific instructions [from Fidel]," said one official. "He traveled secretly to Moscow in 1980 when Brezhnev told him to forget any military support in case of an invasion. He also visited Africa — Ethiopia, Angola —before the Angola business. He is a true believer in the U.S. threat to Cuba ... On the other hand, he has said that in the event of war with the U.S., there will be no attack on the U.S. mainland and that the Cubans would permit the evacuation of dependents from Guantanamo as long as there was no attack on Cuba would begin from Guantanamo."
Still, say U.S. officials, the more likely scenario is not war between the U.S. and Cuba, but tension that wavers between high and low, with unexpected developments like the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown and the Elian Gonzalez saga making life miserable for those among them who must try to manage a difficult relationship.
If Fidel Castro should fully exit the world stage, that of course would be the most dramatic event in U.S.-Cuban relations since the Cuban missile crisis. But no one thinks that is about to happen.
"His father lived 'til age 84, his mother til age 92 and that all of his siblings, including an older brother and sister, are still alive and healthy." said one, adding that Raul Castro shares the same gene pool.
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