Castro's Brother, Raul, Is Cuba's New President

Raul Castro is Cuba's first new president in 50 years. Castro, is the younger brother of longtime leader Fidel Castro, has been the country's interim president since 2006. NPR's Tom Gjelten and author Brian Latell discuss the future of Cuba under Raul Castro's leadership.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will take a look at tonight's special made-for-television production of "A Raisin in The Sun". It's a re-make of the classic stage play by Lorraine Hansbury. And part two of our conversation about Kosovo's declaration of independence. Last week we heard from three Kosovar Albanians studying in the U.S. Today three Serbians in the U.S. will give their perspective.

But first we want to talk about events in Cuba. Cuba has a new president for the first time in almost 50 years. He's Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel Castro. Raul Castro has been serving as interim president since July 2006, when his brother ceded power to him before undergoing surgery. Here to talk about these developments are NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten and Brian Latell, a senior research associate with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. Tom has a new book coming out about modern Cuba and Brian is the author of "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader." Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. BRIAN LATELL (University of Miami): Thank you.

TOM GJELTEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Tom, so now Raul Castro is the President of Cuba. We talked about this last week when Fidel Castro made his announcement that he wasn't going to stand for re-election. But was there any chance that this would not have happened, that there was any consideration of someone other than Raul?

GJELTEN: Well, Michel, Fidel years ago designated Raul as his successor, and as you said, he has the been the interim president in the last year and a half. But even so, Fidel also has said that maybe it's time for some, a new leadership, some younger leadership. So yeah, there was at least an outside possibility that someone other than Raul could have been named. And in fact there was some speculation that Fidel's old presidential functions could be split in two so that there would be a head of state, the president, and maybe a separate position, something like a prime minister, and two people could have been appointed.

There was speculation, for example, that Carlos Laje, who has been functioning really as a de facto prime minister for some time in Cuba, could have been given that position formally. But Carlos Laje was not promoted. He's got the same old position he's had in the past, and in fact there's now a new number two in Cuba and he's another hard-liner, Jose Ramon Machado. He's actually 77 years old. So he's another old-timer. That was a bit of a surprise.

MARTIN: So no youth movement there.

GJELTEN: No youth movement.

MARTIN: Brian, tell us a little bit about Raul Castro. What role has he played in the regime? How is he different from his brother?

Mr. LATELL: Well, Raul has been really a partner in this revolutionary regime since the very first days. He's been the defense minister since 1959, just stepped down from that position yesterday. He was the world's longest serving defense minister. Raul is an organizer. He's a manager. He takes care of institutions. He's - those are his strengths. Communicating is not his main strength. He's not charismatic. He doesn't give inspirational speeches. But he's been indispensable at Fidel's side all these years because he makes up for Fidel's lack of organizational skills. Raul is the producer. Fidel is the director of this revolutionary drama that's been going on for so long.

MARTIN: Tom, from Raul's speech yesterday, is there any indication of whether he's interested in moving in the direction of the kinds of reforms that so many people, especially here in the U.S., would like to see?

GJELTEN: Not a lot, Michel. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to dampen speculation that a lot of change is coming. He invoked Fidel's name over and over again, saying he's still commander in chief of the revolution and he said he would consult Fidel on major strategic issues facing the country. In a sense I think that message might have been directed at the United States because the Bush administration in last week has been so outspoken about saying that, well, a change of leadership in Cuba is a time for a change of direction. And he seemed to almost be defying that message.

I was also struck by one section of Raul's speech where he almost seemed to be scolding those Cubans who have dared to complain about the system. He said, quote, "Some people are inclined to talk before being properly informed. They make demands without thinking whether they are talking rationally or irrationally." And he went on to quote from one of Fidel's newspaper columns about people who expect miracles. But there was another section of Raul's speech where he hinted at some economic reforms, even possibly ending the system of a dual currency because the U.S. dollar or a convertible peso tied to the U.S. dollar is used along with the old Cuban peso, and that's a very unpopular system in Cuba. If he does away with that, that would be very popular.

MARTIN: Brain, what's your take on this question, because on the hand Raul sent this message that, you know, we don't want to hear a lot of complaints. But on another hand, he was the one who organized those listening sessions, wasn't he, when he - in sort of this interim period? So what's your take on whether he's interested in changing the status quo?

Mr. LATELL: You know, it's the contradictions that are so delicious with the Castro brothers. And Raul selected a leadership group around him - their names were all announced yesterday - of tough old close colleagues. The most important thing I think to note is that these are all - this new leadership group around him, they are all his guys. They are very close to him. Some of them he has worked with for 50 years. The second message I think it sends is that, as Tom just mentioned, political reform, don't think about it. There's not going to be any political reform, some social loosening, some social decompression, yes. But I think all of these men around Raul agree with him that some significant decentralizing economic reform is absolutely essential. They must do that.

There were some pregnant clues and hints in Raul's speech. Tom mentioned one or two of them. There was also another one, another clue in Raul's speech to commercialization of agriculture. I take that to mean supply and demand market mechanisms. I think Raul realizes he's got to open up agriculture. It's got to have - allow small farmers to produce more for profit and to allow, to allow others to carry, to transport produce to markets for profit. So on the one hand hard-line political, on the other hand economic decentralization with some introduction of market mechanisms. For me it's the original Chinese model of Deng Xiaoping.

MARTIN: I see. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Brian Latell, senior research associate with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, and NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, about the change in power in Cuba or at least the change in faces at the top in Cuba. Tom, what about the presidential candidates in this country? Have they had anything to say about Cuba and our sort of 50 year thaw, or 50 year kind of, you know, frozen relations?

GJELTEN: Frozen relations, right. Well, the issue of Cuba policy came up last week in the Democrats' debate and I was thinking, when was the last time Cuba came up in the presidential debate? I bet it was 1960. Cuba has not been a big issue for - in presidential elections for a long time. But Fidel's resignation has, of course, made Cuba policy once again, you know, an important U.S. policy issue. Both John McCain and Hilary Clinton have signaled that they would probably keep U.S. policy more or less the way it is, dependent on changes in Cuba.

Now, Barack Obama has said that he thinks that U.S. presidents should meet with their enemies and he has said he would meet with the Cuban leadership without preconditions. But then in that debate last week he seemed to backtrack from that a little bit because he said, well, there would have to be preparations for such a meeting and he said that among those preparations there would have to be an agreement that the conversation would be about human rights in part, about democracy in Cuba. And it's not at all clear to me that the Cubans would agree ahead of time to talk about those issues.

So you know, I don't think we can necessarily assume that there's going to be some dramatic changes no matter who is president. But with new leadership in both Havana and in Washington simultaneously, I'd say the chance of a new turn in U.S./Cuba policy, U.S./Cuba relations is greater than its been in a long time.

MARTIN: Brian, as I understand it, you live at least part of the time in Miami, right? So what's been the reaction there?

Mr. LATELL: Well, you know, surprisingly, maybe - maybe surprisingly - the reaction has been fairly muted here in Miami compared to the 31st of July 2006; that was the date of course when Fidel was so ill he had to provisionally turn over power to Raul. There were celebrations in the streets. There were cars and a lot of people waving flags and honking their horns on Caye Ocho in the heart of Little Havana. Quite a large popular turnout at that point. I think the expectation then was that Fidel was on his, was not going to live much longer. The reaction last week here in Miami was much more muted on a much smaller scale. I'm sorry?

MARTIN: You're saying a much more muted reaction on a much smaller scale.

Mr. LATELL: There were relatively few people out. They - I think...

MARTIN: And why is that? Why do you think that is? Just the reality that set in that there's not going to be much change right now?

Mr. LATELL: I think generally - I think generally the reaction here was this is more of the same.

MARTIN: And Tom, in the last minute or so that we have left, clearly public opinion polls aren't really that reliable in a place like Cuba. But as near as you can tell, do we have any sense of what the Cuban people are looking forward to with this change of leadership? Do they have any sense of how their lives might change?

GELTIN: Well, Cubans have been - and Raul, as Brian has alluded to, Raul has opened the door to allowing Cubans to complain and air some of their grievances, and they have jumped at that opportunity. It's clear that there's a lot of discontent in Cuba. Largely, though, they don't dare complain about the political situation. They complain about their economic situation. They've made it clear that they think some economical reforms are needed. I know that, for example, there's a great demand for more self-employment opportunities. And I would say that Cubans are hopeful and anxious for better relations with the United States. I think they would be eager to have more Americans visiting the island.

But you're right. It's very hard to get a sense of what they want politically because there's still a lot of repression in Cuba. It's risky to speak out too much and Cubans are very careful what they say.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is with me here in the Washington studio. He has a new book on modern Cuba coming out. When is it - September?

GELTIN: September.

MARTIN: September?

GELTIN: We'll talk more about it then.

MARTIN: Okay. And we're also joined by Brian Latell. He's senior research associate with the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. His book is "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LATELL: Thank you.

GELTIN: Thank you Michel.

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