Fidel or Raul? Simmering Debate Nears a Boil

Raul Castro, 75, now holds power in Cuba as older brother Fidel Castro recovers from surgery. The development has intensified power struggles in Havana between two sets of loyalists: Fidelistas and Raulistas.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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In Cuba this evening, State Television read a statement from the country's president, Fidel Castro. The 79-year-old leader says that he is in stable condition and in good spirits. Castro has given up power, at least temporarily, after going intestinal surgery. A Cuban government communiqué issued last night said he has transferred authority to his 75-yar-old brother, Raul. Fidel Castro has never relinquished power before.

And, as NPR's Tom Gjelton reports, his stepping aside, even temporarily, raises a number of questions about Cuba's future.

TOM GJELTEN: The last time Fidel Castro underwent surgery, on a fractured knee in 2004, he insisted on local anesthesia. This is a leader who likes being in control. So by ceding authority even to his brother, even temporarily, Castro has made history in Cuba. All indications are that the announcement of the transfer of power was delayed until after the surgery was completed. If this evening's report that Castro is now recovering is true, it means that transfer of his governing authority to Raul is unlikely to bring any significant change.

Frank Mora is a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington.

FRANK MORA: Technically, power rests in Raul's hands, but he will not be able to really, in a formal sense, exercise it until Fidel truly passes from the scene. The regime is in a holding pattern. The most important thing that it wants to do is project an image of calm, of continuity to the Cuban nation, to the United States and the international community.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro is a power in his own right in Cuba. He's been the minister of defense since the beginning of the revolution and most analysts say he has the loyalty of the Cuban military. The communist newspaper in Cuba, Granma, carried a lengthy article on Raul Castro's 75th birthday this past June. Some analysts saw that as a sign that Raul was preparing to take a higher profile in Cuba.

Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington warns that Raul Castro would never make a move without his older brother's approval, but Falcoff says Raul is positioning himself for a leadership role.

MARK FALCOFF: For quite a long time in Cuba there's been a quiet Raul-ista transition under way. He controls the army, he controls the police and he's been filling the civilian ministries with his people, some military, some civilian including some of his relatives. So there's been a sense that Raul is going to take over for quite a while, leave aside the constitutional arrangements.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro has long been seen as an advocate of economic reforms, and as Cuba's leader, he could be more pragmatic than Fidel has so far been, but the need for reforms in Cuba has declined recently due to generous aid from Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez. Frank Mora says Raul Castro will have an easier time holding onto power without making major concessions because of the support he'll get from Hugo Chavez.

MORA: Chavez feels a sense of responsibility in continuing the legacy of Fidel in Cuba and will do whatever he can to support Raul in his efforts to consolidate his hold on power and prevent that regime from collapsing and possibly being a gain for the United States. So I think Raul can count on Hugo Chavez to help him in that process.

GJELTEN: If or when Raul Castro does take charge in Cuba after Fidel, U.S. policy won't automatically change, but Cuban exiles in the United States have focused their hostility to the Cuban regime largely on the person of Fidel Castro. Mark Falcoff says having Raul in charge in Cuba could introduce a new element in the U.S./Cuba Relationship.

FALCOFF: Fidel Castro's been the great unifying element in the exile community, which otherwise is quite divided on a number of issues. I'm not sure Raul has the capacity to do that and all that means is that if Raul Castro chose to make some significant changes, that would undoubtedly divide the exile community and that could have consequences in U.S. policy.

GJELTEN: Cubans on the island, Cuban Americans, and Cuban experts here in the United States have all wondered so long about how Cuba would change after Fidel Castro that this report of his illness has introduced a flurry of speculation.

Still, if he is indeed recuperating right now and his absence from the scene is only temporary, everyone will have to wait a while longer to find out what actually will happen.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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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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