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Fidel or Raul? Simmering Debate Nears a Boil

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Cuba this evening, State Television read a statement from the country's president, Fidel Castro. The 79-year-old leader says that he is in stable condition and in good spirits. Castro has given up power, at least temporarily, after going intestinal surgery. A Cuban government communiqué issued last night said he has transferred authority to his 75-yar-old brother, Raul. Fidel Castro has never relinquished power before.

And, as NPR's Tom Gjelton reports, his stepping aside, even temporarily, raises a number of questions about Cuba's future.

TOM GJELTEN: The last time Fidel Castro underwent surgery, on a fractured knee in 2004, he insisted on local anesthesia. This is a leader who likes being in control. So by ceding authority even to his brother, even temporarily, Castro has made history in Cuba. All indications are that the announcement of the transfer of power was delayed until after the surgery was completed. If this evening's report that Castro is now recovering is true, it means that transfer of his governing authority to Raul is unlikely to bring any significant change.

Frank Mora is a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington.

FRANK MORA: Technically, power rests in Raul's hands, but he will not be able to really, in a formal sense, exercise it until Fidel truly passes from the scene. The regime is in a holding pattern. The most important thing that it wants to do is project an image of calm, of continuity to the Cuban nation, to the United States and the international community.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro is a power in his own right in Cuba. He's been the minister of defense since the beginning of the revolution and most analysts say he has the loyalty of the Cuban military. The communist newspaper in Cuba, Granma, carried a lengthy article on Raul Castro's 75th birthday this past June. Some analysts saw that as a sign that Raul was preparing to take a higher profile in Cuba.

Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington warns that Raul Castro would never make a move without his older brother's approval, but Falcoff says Raul is positioning himself for a leadership role.

MARK FALCOFF: For quite a long time in Cuba there's been a quiet Raul-ista transition under way. He controls the army, he controls the police and he's been filling the civilian ministries with his people, some military, some civilian including some of his relatives. So there's been a sense that Raul is going to take over for quite a while, leave aside the constitutional arrangements.

GJELTEN: Raul Castro has long been seen as an advocate of economic reforms, and as Cuba's leader, he could be more pragmatic than Fidel has so far been, but the need for reforms in Cuba has declined recently due to generous aid from Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez. Frank Mora says Raul Castro will have an easier time holding onto power without making major concessions because of the support he'll get from Hugo Chavez.

MORA: Chavez feels a sense of responsibility in continuing the legacy of Fidel in Cuba and will do whatever he can to support Raul in his efforts to consolidate his hold on power and prevent that regime from collapsing and possibly being a gain for the United States. So I think Raul can count on Hugo Chavez to help him in that process.

GJELTEN: If or when Raul Castro does take charge in Cuba after Fidel, U.S. policy won't automatically change, but Cuban exiles in the United States have focused their hostility to the Cuban regime largely on the person of Fidel Castro. Mark Falcoff says having Raul in charge in Cuba could introduce a new element in the U.S./Cuba Relationship.

FALCOFF: Fidel Castro's been the great unifying element in the exile community, which otherwise is quite divided on a number of issues. I'm not sure Raul has the capacity to do that and all that means is that if Raul Castro chose to make some significant changes, that would undoubtedly divide the exile community and that could have consequences in U.S. policy.

GJELTEN: Cubans on the island, Cuban Americans, and Cuban experts here in the United States have all wondered so long about how Cuba would change after Fidel Castro that this report of his illness has introduced a flurry of speculation.

Still, if he is indeed recuperating right now and his absence from the scene is only temporary, everyone will have to wait a while longer to find out what actually will happen.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.