Raul Castro Reticent in Newspaper Interview

Cuba watchers ponder the first public comments from Raul Castro since he took power in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's surgery. Raul Castro showed deference to his older brother, but analysts suspect he is consolidating his power.

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It was three weeks ago this weekend that Fidel Castro had major intestinal surgery, leaving the leadership of Cuba in the hands of his brother, Raul. Fidel Castro is now said to be recovering, but he remains hospitalized. Raul has kept a low profile. His first public comments since taking charge came in an interview published yesterday in the Cuban Communist party newspaper Granma.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that Cuba watchers are scrutinizing that interview for hints of where Raul Castro might lead the country.

TOM GJELTEN: Raul Castro received the Granma editor in his offices at the Ministry of Defense, where he has presided since 1959. The fact that he has not moved into Fidel Castro's office shows that Raul still defers to his older brother. At the very beginning of the interview he spoke of Fidel as El Jefe, the chief. Raul Castro had no particular explanation for why he let nearly three weeks pass without making any public statement about the situation in Cuba. He said only that it is not his custom to make public appearances and that he didn't plan to change.

In fact, he's been busy. As Defense Minister Raul put the Cuban military on alert in the first hours after Fidel's surgery was announced. He also told the Granma editor that he had ordered the mobilization of tens of thousands of army reservists and militiamen because, he said, we could not rule out the risk of somebody going crazy within the U.S. government. Frank Morra, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington, suspects that Raul has also been making sure that he is ready to succeed his brother in power should Fidel die.

FRANK MORRA: This is a time for him, I think, to make sure that all the ducks are in a row and that he's consolidating his position. In fact, I think that this is an ideal scenario for him because he's able to take those kinds of political initiatives, that is to say consolidate his power, while Fidel's still very much alive and no one will challenge those, certainly, while Fidel is still alive.

GJELTEN: Raul had little to say about Fidel's condition except that he is gradually recovering. He quoted Fidel throughout the interview on a variety of subjects as if to underscore his loyalty to his older brother and deflect speculation that he might be thinking of leading Cuba in a different direction. Raul did make a point of saying that Cuba is open to an improved relationship with the United States as long as it is on the basis of equality. He was careful to say that this has been Fidel's position as well. But Frank Morra thinks Raul may be serious about a move in this direction if only because as Fidel's successor he might soon find himself under pressure to show Cubans that things will get better under his leadership.

MORRA: In the long term he understands that a more normal relationship with the United States is going to help him consolidate or hold on to power beyond the two or three year period.

GJELTEN: If Raul Castro was hoping his comments would be charitably received by the United States, however, he was wrong. State Department spokesman Tom Casey yesterday was close to contemptuous in his reaction to Raul's interview.

TOM CASEY: I guess you're asking me what we think of remarks by Fidel's baby brother. And what do we think of them? I guess not much, is the answer. We're not particularly fond of the government of Cuba as run by Fidel. I can't say that we're particularly enamored of the first words we've heard from Fidel Lite.

GJELTEN: Raul, as Fidel Lite, is unlikely to be bothered by that hostile reaction, however. It is hardly a new tone in U.S.-Cuban relations. And in the Granma interview, Raul Castro was careful to note that the U.S. attacks against him and his government in the last three weeks have been only rhetorical, a point Fidel Castro would have been less likely to emphasize. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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