Castro Illness Leads to Questions About Cuba's Future

Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery in July. In his absence his brother Raul has been in power. While Cuban officials insist their president is improving and will soon return to work, his prolonged absence is fueling rumors that the 80-year-old Castro is dying.

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More than five weeks have passed since we last saw pictures of Fidel Castro. He underwent intestinal surgery in July. Cuban officials insist their president is improving and will soon return to work.

But his prolonged absence is fueling rumors that the 80 year old is on his deathbed. And his brother Raul is acting more and more like the country's next leader.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: Several foreign leaders who were in Havana in mid-September for the summit of non-aligned countries visited Fidel Castro in the hospital and had their pictures taken with him.

He put out a statement saying he was getting better. But he also said Cubans should be prepared for bad news. There've been no pictures of Castro since then. U.S. Intelligence officials now say they believe he is suffering from terminal cancer.

Last week, Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva raised eyebrows when he said - inadvertently, it seems - that he regretted Castro had not democratized Cuba, quote, “while he was alive,” unquote.

This past weekend, a newspaper in Caracas reported a rumor that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had made a secret trip to Havana to say goodbye to Castro.

At a Cuban mission here in Washington, the ranking Cuban diplomat, Dagoberto Rodriguez, did his best yesterday to dispel the rumors that Fidel Castro's life is in danger.

Mr. DAGOBERTO RODRIGUEZ (Cuban Diplomat to U.S.): His health has been improving everyday, and he will be soon assuming his duties as the President of Cuba. And that is all I can say.

GJELTEN: Developments on the island, however, are unfolding in a way that suggests brother Raul is now in charge. Hal Klepak, a Cuba specialist at the Royal Military College in Canada, points to a series of extraordinary news articles in a government newspaper this week highlighting problems of inefficiency, waste and corruption in the Cuban socialist economy. It could be a sign, Klepak says, that as Fidel's successor, Raul would lead Cuba in a different direction.

Professor HAL KLEPAK (Cuba Specialist, Royal Military College, Canada): It's fascinating that they're allowing that kind of level of criticism. My own reading of that is that they really do want to give hope to the public that with this succession, this is not going to be either of the country in civil war, nor is it going to be a government which is unwilling to look closely at what's going on and try to find some ways to reform things.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro, in fact, has long been known among Cuba watchers as an advocate of economic reforms. As acting president, he's also made some high- level personnel changes in his government, overseeing the replacement this week, for example, of the much-criticized minister of transportation.

Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst at the CIA, thinks Raul's moves are signs that Fidel will not be coming back to power.

Dr. BRIAN LATELL (Former Cuba Analyst, CIA; Author, After Fidel): If he were, Raul would be much more cautious, much more wary of staking out new policy territory as he is.

GJELTEN: Latell, author of the book After Fidel, says that by taking the political initiative, Raul is ensuring a smooth government succession in Cuba. A lack of leadership at this time, he says, would invite instability.

Dr. LATELL: Raul just can't sit around and be idle for this period of time. It's been - what, it's almost three months now since the proclamation. So Raul has to take charge.

GJELTEN: The official government position, however, is that Fidel Castro will return as president. And with his medical condition considered a state secret, few people outside an inner circle in Havana really know how he's doing.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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