Sunday, February 24, 2008

Uncertainty surrounding Cuba

Uncertainty surrounding Cuba

Castro's resignation raises questions on changes to come

By James C. McKinley Jr.

February 21, 2008

When Fidel Castro promised to step down this week as Cuba's head of
state, he left the Cuban people and the rest of the world wondering not
only what role he will play in retirement, but what changes will follow
in the country he has run for nearly 50 years.

JAVIER GALEANO / Associated Press
Cubans walked down an avenue in Havana yesterday. Fidel Castro's
announcement of his intention to retire has left Cubans hoping for
change in the socialist country.
"And what now?" said Annia, a 30-year-old student in Havana who declined
to give her last name to a reporter from Agence France-Presse. "We'll
see what happens. We have to be ready. I just hope whatever comes, the
situation will get sorted out."

Most experts on Cuba, along with many Cubans, expect that Raúl Castro,
the 76-year-old younger brother of Fidel Castro, will step into his
shoes. Raúl Castro, the defense chief and first vice president, has been
serving as acting president since mid-2006.

It remains a mystery whether the elder Castro, who is 81, will split up
the two most important jobs he holds as head of state – the president of
the Council of State and president of the Council of Ministers – to give
one to a younger loyalist. It is unclear who would replace Raúl Castro
as first vice president.


Raúl Castro is expected to be named Cuba's president, when parliament
meets Sunday. Top possibilities to replace him in the No. 2 spot are:

Carlos Lage Dávila, 56: The most likely contender because of his
relative youth and broad experience. He is one of five vice presidents
below Raúl Castro and Cabinet secretary, a sort of de-facto prime
minister. He is credited with helping save Cuba's economy by designing
modest economic reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed. Since Fidel
Castro became ill, Lage has taken a highly visible role traveling the
world to represent Cuba. He has visited China and Vietnam, two other
state-run economies that have carried out free-market reforms that some
Cuban officials hope to copy.

Felipe Pérez Roque, 42: A strong candidate for one of five regular vice
presidencies, at least. Foreign minister for nearly nine years and
previously personal secretary to Fidel Castro, Pérez Roque is well
acquainted with the outgoing leader's thinking.

Ricardo Alarcón Quesada, 70: Considered a long shot because of his age,
despite broad experience. President of the National Assembly, he was
foreign minister for one year and served twice as ambassador to the
United Nations. He has represented Cuba in talks with the United States,
played a central role in the battle for the repatriation of Elián
González and is the government's lead advocate for five Cuban agents
imprisoned in the U.S.

SOURCES: Associated Press and New York Times News Service
Adding to the complexity of the politics, Castro, whose letter of
resignation was released Tuesday, never said whether he would step down
as head of the Communist Party. Under the Constitution, the party has
greater power than the government itself.

Some analysts predicted that Castro will continue to pull the strings of
government, assuming his health permits, while appearing to hand off power.

"Most people received the news with a shrug of the shoulders," said
Elizardo Sánchez, a prominent critic of the government. "I have the
sensation the comandante is not going to retire from the political scene
right now."

But other experts said Castro's admission that his long illness had left
him too weak to return to his post meant that he would let others run
the government and try to overcome Cuba's economic woes.

"I think Fidel Castro is signaling he's getting out of the way," said
Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archive.
"He's going from commander in chief to commentator in chief."

Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, noted
that both Fidel and Raúl Castro had said in recent months that they had
an obligation not only to lead but also to yield to a younger generation
of leaders.

To assure that the socialist government survives for decades to come,
Fidel Castro needs to put one of his younger loyalists in a position of
power, she said. That would mean sharing power and perhaps dividing up
the duties he had.

"Raúl knows he isn't the only game in town," she said.

Few experts on Cuba expect rapid shifts in government policy, much less
a transition to democracy.

Raúl Castro has encouraged more open discussions of policy in tightly
controlled forums, but he has never strayed far from his brother's ideas.

Meanwhile, the Vatican secretary of state began a long-planned trip to
Cuba yesterday to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Pope John Paul
II's historic visit.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was met by Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque
and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who said Bertone's six-day visit is
purely pastoral.

Relations have been mixed between the Vatican and Castro's communist
government, which never outlawed religion but expelled priests and
closed religious schools upon his takeover of Cuba in 1959.

Church-state relations eased in the early 1990s when Cuba removed
references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all
faiths join the Communist Party.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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