Friday, September 01, 2006

Cuba calm, seemingly unchanged in Castro's absence

The Star, Malaysia

September 1, 2006

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - The most visible change in Cuba since an ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his brother is that there are fewer speeches, but a discreet transfer from personal to institutional rule is underway, led by acting president Raul Castro, Cuba experts say.

Cubans, accustomed to knowing only what they are told about the inner workings of the government, have gone about life calmly despite a lack of news about the future since Castro relinquished power on July 31 due to emergency surgery.

"Nothing has changed since Fidel's illness. The only difference is that there are no more speeches on television," said Julio Cesar, a 36-year-old construction worker.

Fidel Castro has not been seen or heard of since his 80th birthday on Aug. 13 when video images showed the frail-looking leader in bed after surgery to stop intestinal bleeding.

"They say the brother could change things, but up to now all I see is more policemen on the streets," said Cesar.

But more than that is going on, said Western diplomats.

The succession now underway was planned months ago when steps were taken to bolster the Communist Party by reviving a defunct secretariat, they said.

"The institutionalization of the use of power has begun to replace personal rule," said a European diplomat. "There is a new dynamic and new players to watch."

Top government members, such as Vice-President Carlos Lage and and Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, a communist stalwart, have taken on a more visible public role.

Lage, who is expected to represent Cuba at the U.N. General Assembly in September, led a campaign this week to eradicate the mosquito that carries dengue fever, a job Castro would have normally done.

Balaguer, who was entrusted by Fidel Castro with one of his pet projects -- the export of Cuban doctors and medical services to Third World countries -- last week presided over the graduation of medical students.


The uncharismatic Raul Castro, 75, who as defense minister already runs Cuba's most efficient institution -- the armed forces -- is a pragmatic organizer and good talent spotter who will govern through a team, Western diplomats and experts say.

He will rely more than his brother, who brushed institutions aside, on the 800,000-member Communist Party, they say.

"The succession has gone smoothly so far," said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua, who would like Cuba's one-party state to evolve into a multi-party democracy. "The only threat is an outburst of social unrest, and there is no sign of that."

Since Castro's surgery, Raul Castro has only appeared in one interview in the Communist Party newspaper in which he said Cuba was open to normal relations with its arch-enemy if Washington stops pressuring for political change in Cuba.

On Tuesday, Granma reported that Raul Castro had met with Syrian Information Minister Muhsin Bilal, the first indication he was assuming the role of head of state ahead of the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries to be held in Havana in two weeks.

"Raul, I believe is in overall charge, but delegating much more responsibility than Fidel cared to," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of "After Fidel."

"I doubt Fidel will ever be back in charge as he was for more than 47 years. He may summon the strength to appear at the Non-Aligned conference, but his health seems to be gravely impaired," Latell said.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes)

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