Cuban Vote Could Shed Light on Castro's Future

Cuba holds parliamentary elections this weekend. There's no suspense about the outcome: In Cuba, only the Communist Party is allowed to compete. The elections, however, are part of a process that should reveal whether Fidel Castro will continue as Cuba's president.

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Cuba holds parliamentary elections this weekend. There's no need for exit polls or predictions - only the communist party is allowed to compete. The elections, however, are part of a process that should reveal whether Fidel Castro will continue as Cuba's president, and U.S. government officials acknowledge they have almost no idea about his plans.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Cuban parliamentary elections aren't remotely comparable to those in Western democracies. There is a single slate - voters either approve a candidate or not. The nominees have been selected by municipal assemblies and by women's groups, worker groups and other communist-led organizations.

Cuba's top diplomat in the United States, Jorge Bolanos, says the Cuban model has advantages over the U.S. political system.

Mr. JORGE ALBERTO BOLANOS SUAREZ (Diplomat to the United States): (Speaking in foreign language).

GJELTEN: It's a more direct democracy, Bolanos says. It's a democracy in which all segments of society are represented and not just those with the money to campaign.

Fidel Castro, last week, urged Cubans to mark a single box for the entire slate of candidates rather than approving them one by one. But this essentially turns the elections into a referendum, where all the voters do is endorse the Cuban system. Jorge Bolanos says the unified vote demonstrates consensus.

Mr. BOLANOS: (Speaking in foreign language)

GJELTEN: The elections, Bolano says, serve as a common denominator for Cubans so they can show they're united against external campaigns meant to divide them.

Dissidents in Cuba, on the other hand, say such elections show only a false unanimity.

Within 45 days, the national assembly has to choose its council of state, including a president from among its members. Some Cuba specialists therefore look at elections like these, not for an indication of what the Cuban people think, but for clues into what might be happening inside the Cuban regime.

When Fidel Castro said recently that he does not feel well enough to campaign for his own parliamentary seat, for example, some Cuba watchers speculated it could mean he's going to give up his presidency. He's not been seen in public since he fell ill in July of last year.

With the U.S. government figuring out Fidel Castro involves a lot of guessing. Brian Latell, for many years a Cuba specialist at the CIA, says it's a hard nut to crack for U.S. analysts.

Mr. BRIAN LATELL (Former CIA Analyst): It's a close monolithic system that protects itself from outside observers. I mean, to be a Cuba expert is almost to be like a Kremlinologist was back in the days of the Soviet Union. You know, you have to read between the lines. You have to try to find evidence in some often very remote places.

GJELTEN: The lack of official U.S. intelligence about political developments inside Cuba has been underscored since Castro took ill. Over a year ago, the then-director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, said his intelligence officers were telling him that Castro would be dead within months.

In part, the failure of the U.S. government to have better intelligence about Cuba indicates how good the Castro regime has been at shielding itself. Several U.S. intelligence officials have said that almost every time the United States has recruited a Cuban spy, he or she turns out to have been a double agent.

The Cubans, on the other hand, have been able to penetrate the U.S. government. The best example being Ana Belen Montes, the top Cuba analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who pled guilty in 2002 to being a Cuban agent.

Brian Latell, author of the book "After Fidel," says the Cuban Intelligence Service, in his judgment, is among the five or six best in the world.

Mr. LATELL: This is not an intelligence service with a global capability. But given there are much more restricted missions and objectives, they are one of the best in the world, especially in terms of their intelligence tradecraft.

GJELTEN: A country's strengths usually reflect its priorities. For nearly 50 years, the government of Fidel Castro has worked above all to stay in power. That means organizing elections it can't lose, and that means having an intelligence service that keeps its secrets secret.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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