The first-ever transfer of power from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to his brother Raul, though announced as temporary, raises the issue of what the future will be for Cuba, its government and the Communist Party when its revolutionary leader is gone.
The announcement read on Cuban state television early Tuesday, said to be issued by President Fidel Castro, was electrifying. Nothing like it had ever been heard before: "Raul Castro Ruz will hold, provisionally, my function as the President of the State Council of the Government of the Republic of Cuba." The state TV announcement said Fidel Castro was undergoing surgery, and had temporarily transferred his powers to his brother, Raul. At no time since Fidel and his revolutionaries had seized power in January, 1959 had such a handover taken place.
Cuban Government in Transition
In Miami, Cubans who left their country because of the revolution reacted to the news with jubilation. The Miami exiles, and some analysts, see Fidel's temporary transfer of power as the beginning of the end for his iron-fisted control of the country. One of them is Dan Erikson with the independent research group Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
"In essence, what has begun is this careful choreography with a script that they have written to manage the inevitable transfer of power from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro and other members of the [Cuban] Communist Party," says Erikson.
Raul Castro is 75 years old, five years younger than his brother, Fidel. Along with holding a general's rank in the Cuban military, Raul Castro is also the First Vice President of the State Council and First Vice President of the Council of Ministers. These posts put him at Fidel's right hand, where he has been since the early days of the revolution. For years, Raul has been seen and groomed as Fidel's successor.
But Xavier Utset, Director of the U.S.-funded Cuba Democracy Project at Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, points out that in many ways, Fidel and Raul Castro operate quite differently. "With Fidel Castro, there has been a lot of spontaneity throughout the almost 50 years [that he has been in power], and there have been a lot of sudden changes," says Utset. "Raul Castro is a person who is going to be leading the country in a more rational way, in a way that is more predictable and in a way that makes more logical sense, at least on the economic side."
A China Model
Utset and others say Raul is likely to reform the Cuban system in a way resembling that of China, where the communist party remains in unchallenged control of the state, but the economy has been allowed to take on some of the trappings of capitalism. The economy, for instance, could be driven by market forces rather than state central planning.
Raul Castro is seen as an administrator rather than a fiery revolutionary such as his brother Fidel, someone who skillfully manipulates the levers of state to preserve what his brother and he achieved.
The broad opinion among observers, including Edward Gonzalez at the RAND Corporation in California, is that the status quo of government and party control will remain. "We will see a successor communist regime led by Raul Castro, but one in which he shares more power with other Cuban leaders," says Gonzalez. "They will have a very strong, efficient security apparatus to 'keep the lid' on things. They will have the military behind them. So at least for the short term they will be able to hold on to power."
Raul Castro's Legacy
Cuba's robust security forces have, for years, harassed and imprisoned dissidents. Frank Calzon, who heads the non-governmental Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, says he is worried that because of Raul Castro's past, his power could be established and maintained through state violence.
"Raul is a killer. He is someone who has ordered a number of people [to be] executed. The danger is that the [Raul Castro] regime will go after the dissidents, and then we could see real bloodshed in Cuba," says Calzon.
Calzon and others point to what happened to the Valera Project as an example of Fidel and Raul Castro's repression. The Valera Project was launched by dissidents and eventually gathered more than 25,000 signatures calling for a nationwide referendum on whether basic rights and freedoms should be enshrined in law and respected by the state. Fidel responded with a wave of arrests, and a counter-campaign that culminated in Cubans voting to permanently keep the Communist Party in control.
But Xavier Utset at Freedom House's Cuba Democracy Project says that despite these setbacks, Raul Castro and the Communist Party will continue to face dissidents, "The opposition movement is getting to a stage of maturity where it can actually be the spearhead toward a wider, popular movement that demands democracy, that is trying to overcome the many obstacles the government is putting in its path."
Utset says that while the U.S. maintains that there can be no discussion with either Castro or Cuba's Communist Party, the efforts of other democratic nations and organizations such as the European Union could provide both pressure and incentive for Raul Castro to reform Cuba. Meanwhile, the United States continues to talk to, and support, Cuban dissidents. A White House commission recently recommended that this effort to assist change be given an additional $80 million in financing. And Cuban exiles in the United States say that when the appropriate time comes, they will step in with cash to help get the economy, and a new Cuba, going.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.