Where the next Castro might take Fidel's Cuba

Some analysts say Raúl could open up the country's economy and start to ease hostilities with the United States.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Where Fidel Castro is known as the publicly charismatic visionary, his younger brother Raúl is the technician, the talent scout – the consummate manager.

Fidel sees China's gradual shift toward free-market reform as a betrayal of socialism. Raúl, the pragmatist, sees it as an economic reality, which someday may have to be implemented in Cuba.

As second-in-command, Raúl has only recently emerged from the shadows, but experts say the two brothers have balanced their strengths and weaknesses since they plotted the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

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Now that Fidel has handed temporary control to Raúl as he recuperates from gastrointestinal surgery as announced Monday night, analysts are weighing the kind of regime that his 75-year-old brother would form while at Cuba's helm.

So long as Raúl is a provisional leader, no one expects anything but the status quo. Even in the long-term, many say his economic instincts and organizational knack won't amount to much in the face of domestic and foreign pressure.

But should Raúl eventually become the permanent leader of Cuba after Fidel's death, some analysts say the less-iconic younger brother could ultimately start to build consensus and open up the country's economy – allowing greater numbers of Cubans to set up restaurants, rent out rooms to tourists, and sell farm products to local markets. Some believe this could also start to ease hostilities with the United States.

"After Raúl had a chance to put his own stamp on things, I would expect better relations with the US," says Brian Latell, a former CIA agent who authored a biography of Raúl called "After Fidel." "That would be something that would reflect the overwhelming desire of the Cuban people. In other words, it would be a politically smart move."

Over the years, Raúl has steadily taken on more state responsibilities. But he does not share widespread support among the general population, experts say, because they view him as brutal, after the hard line he is believed to have taken with his enemies in the early days of the revolution. Most of his support comes from the military, which he has run for over 45 years.

"He does not occupy the same place in the historiography of the Cuban Revolution as his brother," says Mark Falcoff, author of "Cuba, the Morning After." "But you don't have to be popular to be a dictator."

Raúl's economic vision

Raúl's economic vision is where most see room for change after Fidel. The military has largely been handling tourism, which requires foreign investment.

When the subsidies of the Soviet Union disappeared with its collapse in 1991, it was Raúl who urged the opening up of incentives to farmers to be able to sell surplus goods to local markets, reforms which have been scaled back in recent years. Many say he would likely reinstitute and expand such measures.

"If Raúl Castro introduces some sort of reforms or openings, even those that maybe are not that large," says Ian Vasquez, director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the libertarian CATO Institute, "those might be cracks in the system that are difficult to control, and may make it hard to hold Cuban socialism together."

This movement could be meaningless for better US-Cuba ties, however, if the US continues to refuse to deal with any member of the Castro team. A report issued recently on US plans in a post-Fidel Cuba pledged $80 million to bolster Cuban democracy. "Raúl is perfectly capable of bringing about some change," says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat in Havana. "He is open to the idea of a constructive relationship with the US. But the Bush administration is not open to that at all."

At a White House briefing Tuesday afternoon, spokesman Tony Snow said that the US has no plans to rethink its relationship with Cuba for now in light of the temporary transition of power. "There are no plans to reach out,'' Mr. Snow said.

One of the biggest challenges that Raúl, or any leader after Fidel, will face is a rise in expectations anticipated after regime change. "Everyone in Cuba, from the youngest school child to pensioner is waiting for something to change," says Dennis Hays, former official of the Cuban-American National Foundation, an organization dedicated to replacing Fidel's regime with a market-based, democratic government.

And he says no government has the power to bring about the multitude of changes he claims are needed in Cuba, even if it were to put forth its best effort. "There will be an increasing level of unrest, which will lead [Raúl] to crack down. At the end of the day, I don't know that society will look all that different."

Although Raúl has been said to admire the way China has slowly phased in market-friendly reforms, many say that enthusiasm has waned because of the money that Hugo Chávez, the leader of Venezuela, has been able to provide Cuba in oil revenue. "The significant subsidy and security has reduced the political incentive to open up further," says Julia Sweig, author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution" and Director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.

But so has the US government's demands for regime change, she says. And without Fidel, who is the symbol of anti-Americanism, Cuba might raise its defenses higher. "The instinct of everybody there in leadership will be to batten down the hatches," she says. "The moment is a delicate one."

After Raúl?

Having just celebrated his 75th birthday, Raúl, if he is to take the permanent lead of Cuba, will eventually be replaced. For now, chatter of candidates is speculative, but Mr. Latell, the Raúl biographer, says Vice President Carlos Lage could be a successor. Rumors also swirl around Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón – men who have already been ruling the country in its transition plans, say experts.

No one knows who will eventually be chosen, but Latell says Raúl has a keen ability when it comes to finding and grooming the next generation. "It was Raúl who brought Che Guevara into the Cuba revolutionary fold," he says. "Che was his first big recruitment. He is good at that."

Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

Other potential successors

• Carlos Lage, 55, vice president since 1991. Previously a leading member and later deputy director of Fidel Castro's personal staff. Although a close associate of Castro, he differs with him over some reform-related issues.

• Felipe Pérez Roque, 41, was named foreign minister in 1999. He had previously been a long-term key adviser to Fidel and acted as his personal chief of staff.

• Ricardo Alarcón, 69, National Asssembly president, was previously foreign minister and represented Cuba at the UN for 25 years. His relatively liberal stance had brought him into confrontation with party leaders but earned him support from younger, more reform-minded party members.

Sources: AP, The Independent, CubaNews.

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