Tuesday August 1, 2006
For nearly half a century, the CIA and Cuban exiles in Miami have been trying to assassinate Fidel Castro but have never been able to remove him. Today came the news that the world's longest-serving leader was, at least temporarily, relinquishing power to his brother, Raul, because of ill-health caused by an "intestinal crisis" necessitating an operation.
What does it mean?
Raul Castro, the 75-year-old first vice-president and armed forces minister, has been cited as the likely successor to his brother for years. Over the past months, his profile in the Cuban media has been growing, seen by analysts as a sign Fidel Castro is slowly preparing for a gradual handover. Last week, Raul was on the front page of Granma, the Communist party's official organ and the country's main daily paper, greeting the visiting Belarus defence minister. Cubans picking up the paper over the coming weeks are likely to see much more of him.
What effect will this have in Cuba?
Much will depend on whether Fidel Castro recovers. In 2004, he suffered a fall and broke a kneecap and an arm, prompting immediate speculation that he might step down. But he recovered. In 2005, he dismissed US-based reports that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease and anyway, it had not stopped the late Pope, a visitor to the island, from carrying out his duties for many years.
Over recent weeks, too, as he prepared for his 80th birthday party on August 13, he had seemed to be fit, travelling to Argentina for a conference with fellow Latin American leaders, visiting Che Guevara's boyhood home there and addressing 100,000 people last week in eastern Cuba on the 47th anniversary of the revolution.
"The operation obligates me to undertake several weeks of rest," he said in the letter read out last night on Cuban television. The stress of the Argentina visit was blamed in that it "had provoked in me a sharp intestinal crisis with sustained bleeding that obligated me to undergo a complicated surgical procedure". But even if he does make a full recovery, he is aware that he cannot carry on indefinitely.
How different would Raul be? Is he just a temporary measure?
Raul Castro does not have his brother's charisma and many see him, because of his age, as merely a stop-gap. Some think he is more pragmatic than his older brother and would make more of an effort for some sort of compromise with the US.
Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba and author of the book After Fidel, believes he "is likely to be more flexible and compassionate in power". He told the Miami Herald that Raul would want to give Cubans "more bread and less circus".
The three other, younger, names most frequently mentioned as possible successors are: Ricardo Alarcón, 69, president of the national assembly, a former UN ambassador and the most public face of the government; Carlos Lage, 54, the vice-president; and Felipe Pérez Roque, the 41-year-old foreign relations minister and Castro's former chief-of-staff.
Mr Alarcon told the Guardian last week that the economy was picking up and that the publication of the report by the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba was a sign that the embargo was not working as effectively as the US would like.
The transfer of power to Raul presumes a seamless succession and a government being run on the same principles, aided by its ties with oil-rich Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chávez, Castro's closest ally, whose face now appears alongside those of Che and Castro on billboards.
Others obviously wish for anything but a seamless succession. Cuban exiles in Miami will be hoping that Castro's illness will provoke a groundswell on the island that will lead to an end to the communist regime.
Osvaldo Paya, who launched the Varela Project in 2002, which called for freedom of elections, speech and association and the ability to start private businesses, hopes that whatever happens, it will be done without bloodshed.
"When people say what is going to happen in Cuba after Fidel, we say - 'hold on, there are 11 million people in Cuba not only Fidel Castro'," he said last week. He opposes the sort of widespread privatisation as happened in eastern Europe after 1989.
The former head of Cuba's secret service, Fabian Escalante, has calculated that there have been hundreds of attempts to kill Castro and last week a British documentary based on Escalante's calculations, 638 Ways to Kill Castro, was premiered at the BritDoc festival in Oxford.
Castro in his hospital bed may still feel that reports of his demise are exaggerated. But whatever happens, his decision to hand over power, whether he picks it up again or not, is a watershed in Cuba's long and complex history.