A new No. 2 in Cuba?
The list of potential Castro successors is virtually limited to just three main figures.
Paolo Spadoni | Special To The Sentinel
January 13, 2008
In recent weeks, speculation has mounted over whether the 81-year-old Fidel Castro would retain his formal leadership posts in Cuba or step aside for good after a serious ailment forced him to cede "provisional" power to his younger brother Raul, 76, in late July 2006.
Although he has not been seen in public since then, Fidel is still the president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, Cuba's highest legislative and executive organs, respectively. He is also the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and head of its Political Bureau, the nation's most important decision-making entity.
There is indeed a concrete possibility that a permanent succession of political power from Fidel to Raul will be ratified soon. Despite being selected as a candidate for Jan. 20 elections to the National Assembly, which in turn will elect the next president of the Council of State in March, Fidel has hinted at retirement twice by declaring his intention "not to cling to office, and even less to obstruct the path of younger people." A common assumption is that he will continue to exercise significant but waning influence on government policies under some new, wholly honorific title.
A crucial issue, however, has received less attention in foreign media and among international observers.
If Raul permanently assumes presidential responsibilities and the leadership of the PCC next March, someone else must replace him as first vice president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers and second secretary of the party, practically becoming Cuba's new No. 2. And even if Raul, as predicted by some U.S. analysts, will leave the presidency to a younger official and call the shots from behind the scene in a more collegial way, by then it will be clear who has been chosen to lead Cuba once both Castros are out of the picture.
Considering the age factor, the list of potential Castro successors is virtually limited to just three main figures.
Cuba's vice president and de-facto prime minister Carlos Lage, 56, is the most likely candidate for the job at the moment. A member of the PCC's Political Bureau and chief operating officer for the Cuban economy, Lage was the principal architect of the timid capitalist-style economic reforms introduced by the Castro government in the early 1990s to cope with the post-Soviet crisis.
Lage's run for leadership appeared to have lost steam a few years ago following Fidel's decision in mid-2003 to begin a process of re-centralization of the overall economy. But he has gained substantial ground within Cuba's power hierarchy since Fidel fell ill. The choice of Lage as Cuba's new No. 2 would represent continuity with the socialist past and, at the same time, send a strong signal to the Cuban people that liberalizing changes may be on their way. After all, Raul has recently launched a national debate over potential reforms aimed to address the island's key economic problems, enhance living conditions for all Cubans, and guarantee popular support for his government.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 42, is the youngest of the possible Castro successors. A former electronics engineer who served eight years as Fidel's chief of staff prior to his present post, Perez Roque has earned a reputation as a hard-liner who intends to maintain Fidel's socialist model and resist major changes. For this reason, his recent political trajectory was in the opposite direction from that of Lage. Perez Roque seems destined, at best, to become vice president in case Lage moves up or eventually play a more prominent role within the Communist Party.
National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 70, completes the short list of powerbrokers in waiting. An experienced politician who served in various diplomatic posts following the Cuban revolution, Alarcon has long been considered as the third-most powerful man in Cuba. Yet his chances to land the island's top job in the future remain relatively slim. Apart from his age, Alarcon was excluded from the small group of Cuban officials who were instructed on July 31, 2006 (apparently by Fidel himself), to continue work on the ailing leader's priorities under Raul's supervision. Both Lage and Perez Roque were given important responsibilities in the areas of health care, education and energy.
In short, the ongoing electoral process taking place in Cuba may well culminate in a few months with Fidel's retirement from office after almost a half century of undisputed leadership.
Even more important, the same process could finally reveal who is next in line in Cuba's chain of command once Raul will no longer be around.
Paolo Spadoni is a visiting assistant professor in the department of political science at Rollins College in Winter Park. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.