Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Summit Offers Clues to a Post-Castro Cuba

The Los Angeles Times

Preliminary events point to the vice president and foreign minister as likely potential successors to the ailing leader.

By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
September 12, 2006

HAVANA — Ailing President Fidel Castro did not show up at the opening of a summit of developing nations here Monday, leaving the stage to what many believe is the next generation of leaders who will guide Cubans through their nation's first power shift since the 1959 revolution.

They ranged in age from 41 to 69, and the choreography of their roles left ample room for speculation about who is the heir apparent to Castro, who transferred power to his brother Raul and a small cadre of leaders in July, when he underwent intestinal surgery.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 41, stepped up to host the inaugural reception and to address the start of the 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Vice President Carlos Lage Davila, 54, served as official greeter as heads of state and government arrived for the meeting of the 116-nation group formed in 1961 to counterbalance superpower influence.

National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 69, is set to brief international media; Defense Minister Raul Castro, 75, temporarily replacing his brother as leader, was not expected to take part until a culminating plenary session Friday.

Emergence of the Cuban Communist Party officials in the summit preliminaries seemed to validate a long-held belief that Lage and Perez Roque have been positioned to succeed the Castro brothers in the political hierarchy.

Fidel Castro handed power to his brother July 31, when he underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding. Despite reports that his convalescence is proceeding well, he has yet to make a public appearance and has looked frail in photos released by the government.

Raul Castro also has been little seen, although he has appeared at Jose Marti International Airport to greet arriving dignitaries, accompanied by Lage.

The defense minister, always in his general's uniform and military cap, told the party newspaper Granma last month that it was not his style to give speeches and make appearances, which bolstered public speculation that his power was transitional.

Perez Roque, who held a news conference Sunday, was the only Cuban official to speak at Monday's session.

Later, he was host of a reception for senior officials who will draft accords to consolidate the Non-Aligned bloc's policies and interests.

But his seemingly dominant role could be a formality largely explained by his position as the country's top diplomat, rather than a sign that he has surpassed Lage in the succession order.

Speculation has been rampant that Fidel Castro, who turned 80 two weeks after his surgery, will emerge during the six-day gathering to receive the more than 50 heads of state and government, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and leaders of the Arab League and African Union. Expectations center around Friday's ceremonial transferal of the group's presidency from Malaysia to Cuba.

Meanwhile, Cubans expressed cautious optimism that a new regime would embrace more private enterprise than has been tolerated during the 47 years Castro has ruled the island and fought income disparities.

Lage, as architect of the modest economic reforms allowed during the harsh years after Soviet aid disappeared in the early 1990s, is admired by many would-be businesspeople. The physician has expressed support for multiparty elections as well as more latitude for Cubans to open businesses to fill a gaping void in services.

"He's very pragmatic and very well educated," said transportation worker Manuel, who, like most Cubans, doesn't want to be identified talking about a post-Castro scenario. Conceding he would like to go into business for himself in the booming tourism industry, Manuel said that Lage "not only understands that Cubans prefer private enterprise, but that the economy absolutely needs it."

The relaxation of the ban on self-employment 15 years ago allowed thousands of Cubans to open small restaurants and rent out spare rooms to tourists, who began arriving in droves after the reforms attracted foreign investment in joint-venture hotels and services.

But burdensome taxes and bureaucracy forced most of those small enterprises to close during the last three years, when Castro led a campaign to purify the revolution and restore "solidarity" through wage leveling. Doctors, engineers and other professionals here earn about $30 a month, while drivers, maids, bellhops and waiters can augment their $15 monthly pay with as much as 10 times that in tips from tourists.

Though Cubans generally express respect for Castro as a founding father of the revolution, there is a palpable air of impatience with the status quo of low wages and widespread shortages of affordable goods.

A newly married young man driving a state-owned motorbike taxi, who gave his name as Ortiz, said he left college last year because he saw little future in the economics courses being taught.

"We know Lage is for more opportunity and self-reliance," he said, expressing an expectation that the vice president will eventually be Cuba's leader.

Beyond offering a venue for speculation on Cuba's future, the summit is being watched as an attempt to shift the Third World movement away from its anachronistic Cold War roots and mobilize it for the leftist global fight against U.S. economic domination.

In an "unjust and dangerous world," the bloc representing half the world's population "is more necessary than ever," Perez Roque told delegates from nearly 100 nations.

A day earlier, he pledged Cuba's commitment to steering the organization to "positions that counteract aggressive U.S. policy."

Beyond providing an opportunity for anti-U.S. rhetoric, the summit could offer a chance for back-channel diplomacy.

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan were expected to hold rare talks on the sidelines, and Iran is likely to lobby for support for its nuclear program.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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