STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's an effort to figure out who's in charge in Cuba. Two weeks ago, a Cuban broadcaster announced that Fidel Castro had undergone major surgery and delegated governing authority to his brother, Raul. That news prompted speculation that the end of Castro's regime might be near.
Now experts are trying to learn what they can from a series of photos of Castro recuperating. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN reporting:
The first photos, released Sunday, showed Fidel Castro sitting in a red tracksuit at the side of a bed. Video released last evening showed Castro in bed, talking to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The Bush administration did not exactly welcome the pictures as evidence of Castro's recovery. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, Department of State): I've seen him. That's all I would say about it, yeah.
GJELTEN: White House spokesman Tony Snow even wondered whether one photo might have been doctored.
Mr. TONY SNOW (Spokesman, White House): First you had the cheesy Photoshop picture. At least the second one was a little better.
GJELTEN: U.S. intelligence officials, however, saw nothing in the photos to suggest that Castro is not recovering. One official pointed out, for example, that Castro does not seem to have suffered significant weight loss. For a man of his age, two weeks after major abdominal surgery, he doesn't look bad, the official says.
Castro does appear tired in the photos, and his expression is somewhat vacant. In a statement accompanying the Sunday photos, Castro said adverse news could yet come. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, thinks Fidel Castro has given up on returning to power completely and is turning Cuba over to his brother Raul.
Mr. JAIME SUCHLICKI (Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami): My gut feeling is that if he returns it's going to be in a ceremonial position not really to resume power, that succession has already taken place and that Raul is running the country.
GJELTEN: If this is so, it's been a fairly uneventful leadership change. Cuba expert William Ratliff, of the Hoover Institution, says it's not too soon to draw some tentative conclusions.
Mr. WILLIAM RATLIFF (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution): I think we can learn a great deal from what's happened in the last two weeks. There have not been riots. There have not been demonstrations in Cuba. There may be in the future, but at this point there have not been.
I think the succession has been quite smooth. And I think one of the things that that tells us is that the people who are expecting automatically kind of a civil war or are expecting some kind of a democratic uprising just are not in tune with what's happening on the island.
GJELTEN: U.S. policy toward Cuba is based on the premise that there is a pent up demand on the part of the people there for more freedom and democracy and that the U.S. government should do what it can to boost those forces. Thomas Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters last week that it's not surprising Castro is trying to transfer authority to his brother Raul, but that ultimately it will not work.
Mr. THOMAS SHANNON (Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs): Ultimately, there is no political figure inside of Cuba who matches Fidel Castro. The ability of the remaining Cuban leadership to coalesce political power will be difficult, it will be inherently unstable, and in this kind of environment it is important that the international community understand that the key to stability in Cuba is democracy.
GJELTEN: How soon democracy might come to Cuba, however, is anyone's guess. In recent years, experts around the country have come up with a variety of scenarios of what might happen in Cuba after Castro dies. At the University of Miami, Jaime Suchlicki has so far tallied 21 possibilities.
Mr. SUCHLICKI: The one that probably would change Cuba quickly is a total collapse, a breaking down of the armed forces or a challenge by the people to jump in the street, the army decides not to shoot at the Cuban people and it breaks down, and then we have a rapid transition toward democracy.
GJELTEN: Under current U.S. policy, a democratic transition is the only development that would bring an infusion of U.S. aid. But Suchlicki says this is one of the low probability scenarios. William Ratliff, of the Hoover Institution, agrees based on the behavior of the Cuban people so far.
Mr. RATLIFF: The way people have reacted to this is indicative of the way they're going to react to a successor government. I think that that government is going to have to produce. They can't, I think, continue the way Fidel has done, and they're going to have to show that they really want to change and make the economy better in ways that Fidel simply was not willing to condone.
GJELTEN: But Raul Castro, Ratliff argues, very well may turn out to be someone who could bring about those economic reforms. The big question may be how long the situation in Cuba would remain stable after Fidel Castro is gone, and an important point to keep in mind is that Fidel is not yet gone. He has held almost total power in Cuba through 47 years, and it's possible that no one, not the Cuban people, not the Cuban leadership, not even his brother Raul, wants to make any bold move as long as Fidel is still on the scene.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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