NPR logo Q&A: Who Will Succeed Castro?

Q&A: Who Will Succeed Castro?

Cuban Chief of Army Raul Castro during a parade in 2004 at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba. Corbis hide caption

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After 47 years as the leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro has shifted power, temporarily, to his brother Raul as he undergoes surgery for gastrointestinal bleeding. But even before his most-recent illness, succession had been a topic of open discussion in Cuba.

Five years ago, Castro fainted during a speech in Cuba. In 2004, he fell from a platform, shattered his knee, and broke his arm. Some suspect that Castro had a series of small strokes recently. Others believe he suffers from Parkinson's disease.

Many believe that a campaign to prepare the country for the inevitable is under way. But Raul Castro is himself 75 years old and unlikely to command the same kind of loyalty. Who else is in a position to assume power? Tom Gjelten explains.

What's in place for Castro's succession?

The Cuban government is in a terrible position with respect to planning for the succession. For all the time that Fidel Castro has been in power, he has really resisted sharing authority with everyone. He has insisted on making all key decisions himself. And as a result of that, you've had a very centralized system of government, with no local leadership. You don't get people accustomed to taking responsibility themselves, making their own decisions.

The result of which is that there really isn't much authority in Cuba outside the person of Fidel Castro. He can make announcements or pronouncements right now about who's designated to succeed him, but almost everyone who's in a position of power in Cuba — whether it's Raul, or whether it's any of these other second-tier people — owe their position in power to Fidel. Once he is gone, it could be a complete chaos. It could be a vacuum of authority. Everything that Fidel said about what he wants to follow after him, in a sense, goes out the window, because he's not there to make sure it does.

Who would control the army? Who would control the police?

Well, Raul Castro would definitely control the army. He also has Ministry of Interior forces under his command, as well. And this is the one fact, I think, that we can rely on, at least in the short run. Raul has been defense minister, he's been commander in chief of the Cuban armed forces from the very beginning. He does have great loyalty among the Cuban armed forces.

What about that second tier of leaders? Who are they? What positions do they hold?

Carlos Lage. Photo: Corbis

Carlos Lage,, who's secretary of the Council of Ministers, is the ranking technocrat, as it were, in the top Cuban leadership. He's 54 years old, he's been in charge of the Cuban economy. He is certainly competent and has a track record of achievement.

Felipe Perez Roque. Photo: Corbis

Felipe Perez Roque is the foreign minister. He's very young — just 41 — and was born after the revolution. He came to power as Fidel's personal secretary at the age of 21. He is someone who completely owes his position in Cuba right now to his closeness to Fidel Castro. And I think he's someone who's mentioned as a logical person to play a leadership role in the days after Fidel is gone. But how can someone who doesn't really have any authority, outside of what Fidel has bestowed on him, have much of an independent base to operate? I think that's a really important question.

Ricardo Alarcon. Photo: Corbis

Ricardo Alarcon, who is 69 years old, is familiar to Americans because he speaks English and is kind of the designated spokesman for the Cuban government in dealing with the foreign press, and in receiving U.S. and foreign delegations in Havana. He represented Cuba at the United Nations, was at one time Cuba's foreign minister. So a very familiar face, both to the U.S. public and to the U.S. government. But also very closely allied with Fidel and has really served as Fidel's spokesman in the international arena.

Once Fidel is gone, there will be a battle to control not only the government, but also the news media and various forms of public communication. So I think that even if Raul is alive, you could still see some pretty serious competition that might very well be reflected in the public media.