Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cuba's government consults while acting

Chicago Tribune

By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published August 2, 2006, 9:23 PM CDT

HAVANA -- Two days after Cuban President Fidel Castro ceded power following major surgery, Cuba has put in place a more collective style of government that stands in stark contrast with Castro's singular control over this island nation, according to analysts and experts.

While Castro has made every major decision during his 47-year rule, Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and acting president, is known to be an exacting leader who nonetheless consults others before acting.

Experts say this caretaker government provides a preview of what a successor regime could be like should Fidel Castro fail to recover from his current health crisis, and a glimpse of another generation that could lead Cuba in coming years, even beyond the 75-year-old Raul Castro.

Directly below Raul Castro is another layer, widely expected to be the future leaders of the Caribbean nation. They include Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and Carlos Lage, the nation's economic czar. Perez Roque and Lage are more than two decades younger than Castro.

"It will not be a single person dominating the government like we have had in the past," predicted Wayne Smith, America's top diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982 and now director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.

Smith said Raul Castro is likely to act as a sort of "chairman of the board" presiding over other powerful figures, including Perez Roque, Alarcon and Lage. The collective style of leadership reflects the widely held belief that no single leader could succeed Fidel Castro, who single-handedly reshaped his island nation.

There were no official updates Wednesday on Castro's medical condition, which he described in a brief statement Tuesday as stable. Raul Castro has not appeared publicly since Monday, when his elder brother stunned the nation with the announcement that he needed complicated surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding and ceded power for the first time.

Some experts suggested that Raul Castro would take his time before appearing to ease the shock to Cubans that he is now heading the government.

Alarcon told the New York-based independent radio program Democracy Now! that Castro was "very alive and very alert" after meeting with the ailing leader Monday and Tuesday. "He is perfectly conscious, very good speech as always," Alarcon said.

But an eerie silence hung over Havana for a second day.

"This is the first time in my life that I'm afraid," said one Havana resident. "People have been waiting 40 years for this and now we don't know how to react."

Though Fidel Castro did not mention Alarcon in his statement relinquishing power, he is among Cuba's most powerful officials, and his ties to the Castro brothers date to the 1959 revolution.

Affable, pragmatic and a fluent English speaker, the 69-year-old Alarcon is Cuba's most experienced diplomat and has long managed relations with the United States.

In recent years, Alarcon has led Cuba's international campaign to free five Cuban agents jailed in the United States. He also is spearheading Cuba's response to President Bush's pledge this month to boost funding for Cuba's tiny opposition movement while withholding support for any post-Castro government that does not pledge to hold early democratic elections.

Alarcon compared the Bush report to Hitler's "Mein Kampf," alleging it was genocidal and racist.

Despite his rhetoric, Alarcon is often described as a moderate who could favor some economic liberalization to improve the island's economy even while remaining loyal to its one-party system.

Perez Roque, a 41-year-old engineer, spent eight years as Fidel Castro's top aide before becoming Cuba's foreign minister in 1999.

It was Perez Roque who famously stepped to the microphone and calmed the crowd when Fidel Castro fainted during a speech in 2001. He shouted, "Viva Raul!" and then, "Viva Fidel!"

Perez Roque has earned a reputation as a hard-liner wary of tinkering with Cuba's socialist model. "He's a diehard who does want to maintain the system as it is," Smith said.

In his statement Monday, Fidel Castro named Perez Roque as one of three officials responsible for budget matters for health, education and energy, among the president's priorities. He also will continue his foreign-policy duties.

Lage, a 54-year-old former physician, is experienced in economic matters and is credited with implementing limited reforms that rescued Cuba's faltering economy in the 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse.

Although Castro recently reversed the reforms, foreign businessmen working in Cuba describe Lage as a pragmatist who favors a more open economy.

Fidel Castro assigned Lage to help Perez Roque with the budget, as well as the task of improving Cuba's electrical system, a huge effort that has eased Cuba's once-chronic blackouts. Raul Castro holds a variety of titles and wields great power, largely out of the limelight. His main portfolio is the Cuban military, but he has recently taken on responsibility for tourism, one of the nation's most lucrative industries. Some analysts suggest that a government under his guidance could steer Cuba toward a more Chinese-style model, maintaining single-party rule but opening the economy.

Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a Cuba expert at Georgetown University, warned it could be difficult for Raul Castro and the others to sustain a collective leadership should Castro not return. He said differences are likely to occur over policy, and strains within the government could be exacerbated by personal ambitions.

"The experience of collective leadership following single-party or single-leader regimes is that the members fight and someone tries to emerge as the new dominant figure," he said

But Hans De Salas, a researcher at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the senior leaders all were handpicked by Fidel Castro and lack the authority to shift policy or challenge Raul Castro, who leads and enjoys the loyalty of the armed forces, the nation's most powerful institution.

Senior Cuban officials also understand the survival of Cuba's one-party system requires unity even if they differ on some issues, de Salas said.

"They know that in this case unity is of the essence and guaranteeing that unity is the armed forces," he said. "Behind the scenes, the ultimate power broker is not the civilians but the military."

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