ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION form NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Will Fidel Castro ever return to power? Many analysts are doubtful, especially since the Cuban leader didn't show up for his 80th birthday celebration last weekend. Since he became ill last summer, Fidel's brother, Raul, has been in charge. And while the Cuban government says Fidel Castro is recovering, no one else knows his real condition.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The dignitaries from around the world were there. The Soviet-era tanks and planes were on parade. The guest of honor, though, was missing, confirming what long-time Cuba observers suspected.
Mr. BRIAN LATELL (Author, "After Fidel"): I don't think he's coming back. No, I don't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brian Latell is author of the book "After Fidel" and former Cuba analyst at the CIA.
Mr. LATELL: You know, this is the second big occasion that he missed. He missed the nonaligned conference in Havana last September. This event on Saturday, his delayed birthday celebration, the parade and all of the honors that were being heaped on him, he would have been there, I think, had he been able to.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louis Perez is a Cuba expert with the University of North Carolina. He says, though, that Fidel's long goodbye is actually a boon for the communist regime.
Mr. LOUIS PEREZ: What seems to be happening is that a transition process is unfolding, in a way that is actually quite remarkable. That is, if Fidel Castro is no longer present, but he is, in a kind of cosmic sense he's there, he's still alive. If one had come up with an ideal way to transition from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro, this would be it. That he's still alive, but functioning in the background, as ill as he may be.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, the transfer of power is raising hopes among some in Cuba that there will be real change. Independent economist and dissident Oscar Chepe(ph) spoke to NPR by phone from Havana.
Mr. OSCAR CHEPE (Economist): (Through translator) I think the era of Fidel Castro is over, and this is a new time in Cuba, with Raul Castro at the head. And he has a very different style than his brother. He is more consulted, more organized.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On Wednesday, Cuba freed leading dissident Hector Palacios from jail on medical parole. It was the first release of a prominent government opponent under acting president Raul Castro. But while Chepe said that he thinks Raul may open up the economy, he doesn't think political change is coming to the island anytime soon.
Mr. CHEPE: (Through translator) There is still repression in Cuba. The jails are still full. The prohibitions are still present. In China, there has been economic liberalization and there has been repression. One thing does not mean the other will change as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the moment, everyone is trying to decipher in what direction Raul Castro will take the country. In his speech on Saturday, Raul said, quote, "This is an opportunity to once again declare our disposition to resolve on the negotiating table the longstanding conflict between the United States and Cuba." This is the second time that he's made that offer since assuming control, but never in such a public form. Brian Latell thinks the statement was significant.
Mr. LATELL: He knows what happened in November in our elections. He knows that Democrats are taking control of Congress. He recognizes that the president very soon is going to have a new secretary of defense. I know Bob Gates. He's a realist. Perhaps the Cuban government believes there's a new possibility for some progress in bilateral relations.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So far, the Bush administration says it will not engage with any Castro. And it's actually against the 10-year-old Helms-Burton law to do so. That is to America's detriment, says Perez.
Mr. PEREZ: There's a transition going on right now in Cuba. I mean, Cuba's gone for the last 40 years through various phases of transitions. And at each point have been opportunities for the U.S. to engage with Cuba, to participate and influence the outcome of those transitions. And at each point the U.S. has chosen to - rather than engage, has chosen to further isolate. And so nothing developed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tom Miller is the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba." He says he's already imagined how Castro's send-off will be.
Mr. TOM MILLER (Author, "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba"): I think the first thing that's going to happen, it will be announced in the form of a letter from Fidel to the Cuban people and it will be printed everywhere. And then they'll have an enormous funeral in Havana, three days lying in state. They'll bury him in Santiago near Jose Marti and he'll be away from Havana. He never really liked Havana much anyway. And he'll be away from the current government. Even in death, he'll be looking over their shoulders.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even in death, says Miller, Castro will want the next government to feel that he'll be watching.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.