Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cuban transition makes no waves

Posted on Thu, Aug. 31, 2006

Cuban transition makes no waves
A month after Fidel Castro stepped aside, nothing in Cuba seems to have

One month to the day after Fidel Castro ceded power to his younger
brother, Raúl, Cuba appears to be much like a plane on autopilot with no
final destination.

There has been no visible indication of political change on the
communist-ruled island, no visible increase in rule by Raúl, no apparent
change in the machinery of government. There have been no stepped-up
challenges by dissidents or increases in the number of rafters fleeing
by sea.

Neither has there been any explanation for what caused the man who ruled
Cuba for 47 years to undergo intestinal surgery on July 31 and surrender
his monopoly on power for the first time.

Taken together, these elements have left some Cuba watchers wondering
about what is really going on in the island of 11 million people just 90
miles off Key West.

When Fidel Castro handed over the reins to Raúl, he stage-managed a
scene that caught most Cuba experts off guard: a succession from Fidel
to Raúl without Fidel's death.

Even now, some believe, the 80-year-old Fidel may well be continuing to
plot the island's future course, leaving little leeway for his
75-year-old brother.

''I don't think Raúl would want to make a lot of change with Fidel still
in the picture,'' said Mark Falcoff, author of Cuba, The Morning After.
``I think he's scared to death of his brother.''

''He has to be careful on how far he can push, not only because of
Fidel, but because of the hard-line Fidelistas, who would accuse him of
betrayal,'' said Edward Gonzalez, a Cuba expert at the California-based
RAND Corporation.


Illustrating the apparent calm, Miami radio commentator Francisco Aruca,
a steadfast critic of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, had been starting his
daily program with the words ``Today marks XX days, and nothing has

''Contrary to what people want to acknowledge, the great majority of
people [in Cuba] don't want the shaking up of society,'' said Aruca, a
frequent traveler to the island. ``I do believe that they want changes,
but no upheaval or violence.''

Even dissidents on the island have been reluctant to push too hard for
change, perhaps because some want to retain a measure of stability,
perhaps because some fear a government crackdown.

Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana and
frequent critic of U.S. policy on Cuba, said that dissidents have acted
responsibly and that the population as a whole has accepted the transfer
of power ``with great calm and maturity.''

''It had always been planned that Raúl Castro would step in, and he
did,'' Smith said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``Only
people in Miami were expecting some kind of collapse.''

Castro shocked the world on a Monday night a month ago when his
secretary, Carlos Valenciaga, read a letter on Cuban television,
announcing the power shift because of a ''sharp intestinal crisis with
sustained bleeding'' that required ``complicated surgery.''

The public has since seen Castro only twice, first in a series of Cuban
newspaper photos showing him sitting up, then in a video taken during a
bedside visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and broadcast on
Castro's 80th birthday, Aug. 13.

Raúl, too, has kept a low profile, showing up only to meet Chávez at the
airport, in the visit video and later in a photo that accompanied a long
interview he granted to the daily newspaper Granma.

Raúl said in the interview that he was open to dialogue with the United
States, and Washington later made somewhat similar comments. Both
comments included harsh caveats that would make it difficult to open
talks, but they nevertheless raised eyebrows among Cuba watchers.

In the meantime, the Bush administration has shown no appetite for any
aggressive effort to undermine the succession to Raúl and promote a
transition to democracy.


''The U.S. wants to avoid any kind of crisis or instability in Cuba,''
said Antonio Jorge, a professor of economics and international relations
at Florida International University. ``So, I expect Washington [will]
wait for the opportunity to establish some kind of . . . dialogue.''

Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Western
Hemisphere, said the administration's lack of more muscular insistence
for democratic reforms is more likely ``just a question of quiet

''The United States does not want to be perceived as trying to manage
what is happening in Cuba,'' he said.

But Noriega expressed concern about the ''lack of any obvious
mobilization'' by Cuba's small and traditionally tightly monitored
dissident movement.

''That's what's going to propel change -- when Cubans themselves take
the initiative and claim their rights,'' Noriega said. ``They need to
step up.''

In a sign that the elder Castro remains in charge, Raúl reportedly has
continued to work in his office in the Ministry of Defense instead of
moving into Fidel's presidential offices.

But Raúl received a Syrian delegation earlier this week in preparation
for a summit of Nonaligned Movement nations that Havana is scheduled to
host next month -- a move seen as a hint that Fidel will not be well
enough to attend.

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