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Conjecture Fills the Information Vacuum in Cuba

Times Staff Writer

Why hasn’t Raul Castro been seen in public since he became acting president of Cuba?

Would Vice President Carlos Lage Davila, a reputed Gorbachev-style reformer in the Havana hierarchy, have traveled to Bolivia if Fidel Castro was on his deathbed?

Was National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon trying to signal that the bearded revolutionary was going to retire when he noted that Fidel would have to lighten his workload after his recovery?

Kremlinology has come to the tropics. Rumor-mongering and reading of tea leaves have filled the void in the absence of any solid information about who’s really calling the shots in Cuba two weeks after Fidel Castro delegated leadership duties to his 75-year-old brother and underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding.

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Cuba-watchers, cultural figures and politicians throughout North and South America have been left to scrutinize tiny scraps of news and commentary coming out of Havana to try to glean what they might signify for the future of a country that for nearly 48 years has been defined by one man.

State-run media in Cuba have said little about the illness, treatment or recuperation of Fidel Castro, who deemed his health a “state secret” a day after undergoing an abdominal operation July 31.

Authorities in Havana have yet to grant foreign media access to the island, and even the handful of Western journalists based there have been relying heavily on outside academics for analysis of the purportedly temporary power transfer.

Some in the Cuban research field even wonder if the ill-explained power shift isn’t a dry run of Castro’s succession plans to see whether anyone in the leadership ranks tries to exploit uncertainty or whether security revisions are needed to prevent public unrest or foreign interference.

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“Nothing happens in Cuba by coincidence,” said Paolo Spadoni, a University of Florida professor who studies the Cuban economy. Spadoni wonders whether the transfer of power during Castro’s surgery was the Cuban leader’s attempt “to test the strength of the island’s communist system and its future while he is still alive,” rather than a move forced by illness.

Most Cuba-watchers agree that no one outside the Castro brothers’ inner circle has any clear picture of what power-brokering or jockeying for position might be going on in the hermetically sealed corridors of the Cuban leadership.

No one on the outside even knows what ails Castro, what kind of surgery he had, where he is convalescing or how his recovery is proceeding.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez added fuel to the speculative fire Thursday when he said he’d received a letter from Castro in which he learned that his friend and political soul mate was “fighting a great battle” for his life. Cuban officials who have commented on Castro’s condition have tended to suggest he is out of danger. Chavez planned to visit Castro today on his 80th birthday.

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Anthony Maingot, a sociology professor at Florida International University, said the reports of from intestinal bleeding “could mean anything.”

“It could be one of five different things. We don’t know what it is. Trying to follow this day to day is an exercise in futility.”

Prospects for Castro’s recovery and resumption of governing powers are equally unclear.

Alarcon, a former United Nations ambassador through whom Castro often addresses the outside world, sent analysts into a tizzy of interpretation when he said Castro was recuperating well but would have to slow down and delegate more of the workload after his recovery.

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“We need him to be in good health and working,” the parliamentary chief said in a radio interview. “Part of that implies ... abandoning the day-to-day work to which he was so accustomed for many years.”

That kind of gradual retreat from micromanagement would lead to the most stable scenario for Cubans coming to grips with a post-Castro era, said Philip Peters, a veteran Cuba analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia.

“In an extended transition, there wouldn’t be a single moment when suddenly Castro’s absence is felt or suddenly successors have assumed total responsibility for running Cuban government affairs,” Peters said. “There wouldn’t be a single moment when people outside perceive Cuba to be vulnerable.”

When Cuban writer Roberto Fernandez Retamar declared at a Havana news conference that the country had already undergone a “successful transition,” some analysts speculated that the elder Castro was all but out of the picture.

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“Mid-level Communist Party officials in Cuba are saying Fidel Castro will never resume all of his activities,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA Cuba analyst and author of “After Fidel.” “The Fidel Castro era is over.”

Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy and a former State Department official, acknowledged that analysts had no way of knowing whether a transition was underway -- or if Cubans even wanted one.

“We don’t know to what degree anyone in Cuba is going to be expressing demands” for change of the communist system in place for nearly half a century, she said.

Two weeks into the cloudy power transfer, Raul Castro’s absence from the public eye has raised eyebrows among analysts, but they note that Cubans are accustomed to long spates without seeing their leaders.

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Fidel Castro’s lifelong monopoly of the spotlight might be discouraging his brother from taking the stage now, said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

He said he suspected Fidel Castro might be planning a triumphant public comeback, perhaps at the Sept. 11 opening of a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana.

Analysts say Lage, whom they expect to be named prime minister or Communist Party leader if Castro dies or passes on those titles, wouldn’t have gone to Bolivia during the first week of El Maximo Lider’s illness if there were credible fears Castro might die.

Analyst Peters is starting to believe the “dry run” theory.

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“Did you ever wish you could attend your own funeral to see what people say and do when you’re gone?” he asked in a paper posted Friday on the Lexington Institute website.

Since Castro stunned the world by relinquishing the reins for the first time in his tenure, Peters wrote, “he has witnessed a dress rehearsal for his own death, a matter of no small importance for the security of the Cuban revolution.”


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