Q & A: Power Shift in Cuba

Celebrations in Miami i 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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