Cuba (and Cuban Exiles) Ponder the Future

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The announcement that Fidel Castro has temporarily handed power to his brother Raul has set off waves of speculation about Cuba's future. In Miami, Cuban exiles took to the streets to celebrate the news.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now is Tom Gjelten, who has long covered Fidel Castro for NPR and who's now on leave, working on a book about Cuba. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, as we've just said, this is the first time Castro has ceded power to anyone since he took power in 1959. And for you, what does it say about the seriousness of the situation?

GJELTEN: Renee, if he really has ceded power to his brother Raul, it would be extraordinary. Because in all these years, since he took power in 1959, Fidel has made every major decision in Cuba. There's nothing that has happened in that country that has not borne his print. Every time the country has made a turn toward, let's say, reforms or toward a more hard line, it's been Fidel himself, acting alone, who has made that judgment. So not only has he not ceded power in any formal way, he hasn't really even shared authority for governing Cuba during all these years. Everyone who is in power in Cuba today is there, in one way or another, because Fidel has bestowed authority on him or her. So we've never seen a Cuba in which Fidel is not dominating. It's been - it would be unimaginable, just about, to have a Cuba in which he does not play this dominating position.

He does not like to share power, Renee. And I think it's fair to assume that if he can possibly continue to call the shots from his hospital bed, he'll be doing so. If it turns out that Raul Castro really is in charge and making decisions, that will indeed be a completely changed situation with unpredictable results. The bottom line, Renee, is that we'll be getting a glimpse of what's likely to happen in Cuba after Fidel really is gone.

MONTAGNE: Well, what are we then likely to see during this period when Raul Castro - at least theoretically or officially, certainly - is in charge?

GJELTEN: Fidel has, several times already, designated Raul as his successor, so there's nothing surprising about that. In fact, just this summer, within the past few weeks, the Cuban newspaper Granma, has carried major, major coverage of Raul - lauding him, praising him. Now one question is whether Fidel himself has been orchestrating that coverage. Whether, in a sense, he's been setting Raul up. And one interpretation of these events could be that Fidel, in fact, is not as seriously incapacitated as he might seem to be, but in fact is putting Raul out there to sort of give him a test run, as it were.

On the other hand, if in fact Raul really is in charge, we may see some signs of changed directions in Cuba. He is - Raul Castro - is considered to be more pragmatic than Fidel. He's interested in economic reforms that Fidel has spurned. As Defense Minister, Raul has been deeply involved in the economy because the Cuban military is a major economic player in Cuba. So it's possible we'll see some directional change in Cuba.

The other thing is that we'll be watching for possible political realignments within Cuba. There are a lot of people with important positions in Cuba, such as the Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who's very close to Fidel. On the other hand, there are people who are close to Raul. You have your Fidelistas and your Raulistas. And if we now see the Raulistas taking in more of an important position in Cuban politics, that will be significant. You know, we've longed assumed there would be a power struggle in Cuba in the aftermath of Fidel's rule, (Unintelligible) it's possible that we'll see some signs of that power struggle emerging now in the next few weeks.

MONTAGNE: There are more than a half million Cuban Americans in South Florida who fled Cuba and have been waiting for Fidel to die, or at least relinquish power, for all these years. What's been the reaction so far in Miami?

GJELTEN: Miami, last night, sounds like it was quite the scene. There were roads that were actually closed because people were out in the streets celebrating. One of the reactions is - as we heard in the two-way with Gary Marx - there are a lot of Cubans who think that Fidel may in fact already be dead. You know, that these whole carefully orchestrated announcement may just be just be a way of sort of buying time and preparing the Cuban people for his demise. So there are a lot of people in Miami who are already celebrating, out there banging pots in the streets and so forth, thinking that Fidel may already be gone.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, any the U.S. reaction so far?

GJELTEN: No U.S. reaction. This is going to be a real critical test of U.S. policy. Fidel has been the personification of Cuba for so long that U.S. policy toward Cuba is centered, very much, on the person of Fidel. And if he is gone, when he is gone, there's bound to be some reconsideration.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Tom Gjelten is working on a book about Cuba.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Q & A: Power Shift in Cuba

Celebrations in Miami i

People wave Cuban and U.S. flags as they celebrate on the streets of Little Havana in Miami, Aug. 1, 2006, one day after hearing the news that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was ill and had relinquished power to his younger brother Raul. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Celebrations in Miami

People wave Cuban and U.S. flags as they celebrate on the streets of Little Havana in Miami, Aug. 1, 2006, one day after hearing the news that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was ill and had relinquished power to his younger brother Raul.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Q: This is the first time Fidel Castro has ceded power to anyone since he took power in 1959. What does that say about the seriousness of this situation?

If he really has ceded power to his brother Raul, it would be extraordinary, because in all the years since he took power in 1959, Fidel has made every major decision in Cuba. There's nothing that has happened in that country that has not borne his imprint. Every time the country has made a turn toward reforms, or toward a more hard line, it's been Fidel himself, acting alone, who has made that judgment.

So not only has Fidel not ceded power in any formal way, he hasn't even really shared authority for governing Cuba during all these years. Everyone who is in power in Cuba today is there, in one way or another, because Fidel has bestowed authority on him or her.

It would be unimaginable, just about, to have a Cuba in which Fidel does not play this dominating position. He does not like to share power, and I think it's fair to assume that if he can possibly continue to call the shots from his hospital bed, he'll be doing so.

If it turns out that Raul Castro really is in charge and making decisions, that will indeed be a completely changed situation, with unpredictable results. We'll be getting a glimpse of what's likely to happen in Cuba after Fidel really is gone.

Q: What are we likely to see during this period when Raul is in charge?

Fidel has already several times designated Raul as his successor, so there's nothing surprising about that. In fact, just this summer, within the past few weeks, the Cuban newspaper Granma carried major coverage of Raul, lauding and praising him. One question is whether Fidel himself has been orchestrating that coverage to set Raul up.

One interpretation of these events could be that Fidel, in fact, is not as seriously incapacitated as he might seem to be, but is putting Raul out there to give him a test run of sorts.

On the other hand, if Raul really is in charge, we may see some signs of changed directions in Cuba.

Raul Castro is considered more pragmatic than Fidel. He's interested in economic reforms that Fidel has spurned. As defense minister, Raul has been deeply involved in the economy, because the Cuban military is a major economic player in Cuba. So it's possible we'll see some directional change in Cuba.

We’ll also be watching for possible realignments within Cuba. There are a lot of people with important positions in Cuba, such as Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who are very close to Fidel. On the other hand, there are people who are close to Raul.

You have your Fidelistas and your Raulistas. If we now see the Raulistas taking more of an important position in Cuban politics, that will be significant. We've long assumed there would be a power struggle in Cuba in the aftermath of Fidel's rule. It's possible that we'll see some signs of that power struggle emerging in the next few weeks.

Q: There are more than a half-million Cuban-Americans in South Florida who fled Cuba and have been waiting for Fidel to die or relinquish power. What's been the reaction so far in Miami?

Miami last night was quite the scene. Roads were closed because people were out in the street celebrating. There are a lot of Cubans who think Fidel may already be dead — that this carefully orchestrated announcement may just be a way of buying time and preparing the Cuban people for his demise. So there are a lot of people who are already celebrating, out there banging pots in the streets, thinking that Fidel may already be gone.

Q: What does this mean for the United States?

This is going to be a really critical test of U.S. policy. Fidel has been the personification of Cuba for so long that U.S. policy toward Cuba is centered very much on the person of Fidel. And when he is gone, there's bound to be some reconsideration of that policy.

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