The Washington Post
By Associated Press, Tuesday, March 22, 3:28 PM
The safest choice for the No. 2 party spot would probably be Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a strict disciplinarian of unquestioned loyalty who has been with the Castros since their guerrilla days in the Sierra Maestra mountains and once extracted a bullet from Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s foot.
Machado Ventura, 80, is already Raul Castro’s first vice president and holds several other key posts in the government.
Another old-timer who could get the nod is Ramiro Valdes, 78, who is vice president of Cuba’s supreme governing body, the Council of State, and oversees the crucial ministries of telecommunications and construction from a new position carved out for him in January.
But neither choice is likely to shake things up politically, or result in improved relations with the United States, which has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for 48 years.
Bilateral ties have plunged into a deep freeze recently due to the conviction earlier this month of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who received a 15-year prison sentence for bringing satellite equipment into the country illegally.
A congressional staffer involved in U.S.-Cuba relations said Fidel’s official departure from the party will not lead, at least in the short term, to improved relations with Washington.
“It will not have much of a political impact on bilateral relations because Raul has the same last name,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. He said it would take the death of one or both of the two brothers to change perceptions in the United States.
“His stepping down will be a watershed on the island, for sure, and it will be seen as such by most in Washington,” he said. “But some people will still say Fidel is calling the shots, whether or not it is really the truth anymore.”
However the party shake-up plays out, it is likely to leave Raul with more room to transform the island’s ever-weak economy.
The Communist Party Congress at which Fidel’s successor is likely to be picked has been called to set a new economic path for the country, one which Raul has been pushing since he took office.
Many of the changes Raul has already embraced, like allowing Cubans to go into business for themselves, rent homes and even hire employees, have long been anathema to his brother.
There has been speculation — impossible to confirm in Cuba’s hermetically sealed political culture — that Raul Castro would have moved the reforms along faster if not for his older brother’s larger-than-life presence and continued influence behind the scenes.
Tomas Bilbao, the executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Cuba Study Group, which supports increasing economic and academic exchanges with the island, said the impact of Fidel’s resignation cannot be overstated.
“I think it’s significant because if nothing else it’s Fidel Castro sending a clear message that his brother is in charge of the country,” he said. “It’s a big boost in credibility for Raul and the reforms he’s trying to push.”