Fidel-Less Cuba at Helm of Non-Aligned Nations

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Cuba will lead the Non-Aligned Movement for the next three years, but as leaders gather for a Havana summit, Raul Castro seems uncomfortable in a leading role. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque is the government's new "internationalist."


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, remembering Mr. Peeps of Balmer, which is Baltimore.

But first, leaders of the non-aligned countries are in Havana today for the second day of their summit. Cuba's Fidel Castro was a founding leader, but this summit is proceeding without him. Castro's doctors have reportedly ordered him to stay in bed while he recovers from surgery.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that the Havana meeting is an opportunity for some of Cuba's other leaders to take charge.

TOM GJELTEN: Fidel's absence here is significant. This would've been the second time he hosted a non-aligned summit, a distinction Cuba shares only with the former Yugoslavia. The management of this event has thus been a test for Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and designated successor, and for Cuba's other backup leaders.

It was also a chance for them to show they had ideas of their own. But every Cuban leader who spoke in public this week stuck to the party line. Vice President Carlos Lage, reputed to be a reformer, gave a speech in which he blamed virtually every problem in the developing world on the United States.

The economy minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, is thought to favor some market openings along the line of what China has pursued. But in a meeting with reporters, he didn't seem interested.

Mr. JOSE LUIS RODRIGUEZ (Economy Minister, Cuba): (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: What the Chinese did, Rodriguez said, is appropriate for the conditions of China. Cuba has a different culture, different resources, and a different perspective.

One possible reason for the political and ideological unity on display here is that Fidel Castro is still alive, still the president. Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly and Cuba's point man on dealing with the United States, said in a brief interview during the summit proceedings that over the next three years, the period in which Cuba will hold the rotating presidency of the non-aligned movement, the leader of the movement will be the man at the head of the Cuban government.

Mr. RICARDO ALARCON (President, Cuban National Assembly): In this case we're talking about President Fidel Castro right away, who is very much following step-by-step what is going on here.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro presided at the opening session of the summit here yesterday. Some analysts think that as Cuba's leader he would reach out to the United States. Raul could not have been pleased, however, by a U.S. statement yesterday that Cubans should vote over whether he should be Fidel's successor. And there was no appeal to the United States evident in Raul's opening speech.

Acting President RAUL CASTRO (Cuba): (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: Raul Castro described the current international situation as one characterized by irrational pretensions of world domination by the only global superpower, with the complicity of its allies.

But Raul, who's been leader of the Cuban military since the triumph of the revolution, seemed a bit uncomfortable in his presiding role at the summit. This week was the first time people here could recall seeing him in a suit. He read his speech with his head bent over his text, unlike Fidel, who speaks extemporaneously and jabs his fingers in the air to make a point.

Raul ended with a long quote from Fidel's speech at the last non-aligned summit in Cuba, as if he were conceding he could not improve on his brother's performance. In fact, it was left for the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, to play Fidel's flamboyant role at the conference.

Chavez spoke without notes and joked that Fidel had told him he could go on beyond his allotted time because Raul would never use all his time. And perhaps to underscore his claim to Fidel's world leadership role, Hugo Chavez ended his speech with a line Fidel has been repeating at the end of his speeches for more than 40 years.

(Soundbite of speech)

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: Even onward to victory, the fatherland or death, we will win.

While Hugo Chavez may be able to carry on Fidel's leadership role internationally - however - he cannot govern Cuba. That will be up to Cuba's leaders. From this week it's clear they are capable of managing the country in the short run without Fidel's day to day direction.

But there are many challenges ahead, and whether the unity on display here this week can be sustained when it comes time to make difficult choices is far from certain.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Havana.

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