Castro hints at a younger ruler in the coming Cuba

Times Staff Writer

Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s decision to step down as head of state after nearly half a century could signal the passing of power to a new generation and fresh hope for the island nation through economic reforms.

Tuesday’s resignation letter, which includes candid disclosures about his flagging health, was an unequivocal indication that the 81-year-old revolutionary is choreographing his own succession and leaving on his own terms. Castro, who has run Cuba for 49 years, ranks as the world’s longest-ruling head of state outside of monarchs.

He will remain first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party and a member of parliament and is likely to continue to serve in an advisory role behind the scenes.

Officials in Washington said there were no immediate plans to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, including its trade embargo. In Miami’s large exile community, reaction was subdued.

Castro’s 76-year-old brother, Raul, who began leading the country when Fidel fell ill and temporarily ceded power to him 19 months ago, has widely been considered the likely next head of state. Raul is the constitutionally designated successor to his brother by virtue of his No. 2 position in the party hierarchy.


But the elder Castro recently has indicated that he may favor a younger, more energetic person to succeed him. He has hinted that someone else might emerge Sunday when the newly elected National Assembly convenes to propose a new executive body, the 31-member Council of State.

“He’s catching up to me in years, so it’s also a generational problem,” Castro says of Raul in his autobiography, “Fidel Castro: My Life,” released in English this year by Scribner.

Speculation about who may become president, if not Raul, has centered on Vice President Carlos Lage, a 56-year-old physician by training who has been representing Cuba at international events in Castro’s absence.

Lage designed and implemented a slate of modest economic reforms in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and billions of dollars in annual subsidies to Cuba stopped overnight. Those changes allowed thousands of Cubans to open small private businesses, many catering to foreign visitors and giving rise to the first tourism boom on the island under communist rule.

In addition to Castro and Lage, others mentioned as possible heads of state are Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who at 42 is the only senior Cuban official born after Castro came to power, and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 70, who has remained active and visible in the nation’s affairs during Castro’s absence.

Castro has made no secret of his distaste for the changes that put dollars in the hands of some Cubans while leaving the majority with the inconvertible peso, which isn’t accepted at hard-currency stores selling imported food and consumer goods.

Nevertheless, Castro’s brother and other Cuban officials have continued to discuss the need for structural changes to improve living standards. They have encouraged Cubans to speak out about the current system’s shortcomings and to propose ideas for strengthening the country of more than 11 million people.

Today the revolution’s supporters point to the country’s free and universal education and healthcare, while critics say the country suffered a loss of personal liberties and material well-being.

In South Florida, where 800,000 Cuban Americans live and dominate the political and economic scenes, about 100 people gathered along Little Havana’s Calle Ocho in Miami to wave placards denouncing Castro. Several members of the exile community dismissed Castro’s announcement as relatively meaningless as long as he’s alive and influencing Cuban life.

In his resignation letter, posted about 3 a.m. on the website of the Communist Party daily Granma, Castro reminded Cubans of comments he made to a television moderator in a December letter that he said were intended to prepare the nation for his retirement.

“My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era in which I lived,” he cited from his earlier note to viewers of the nightly “Round Table” political discussion show.

Cuba scholars describe Castro’s carefully managed withdrawal as evidence that gradual change is on the horizon for the island, whether or not U.S. policy is revised to promote that change.

“What we will see in agriculture and in small businesses that are now state-run is a redefinition of property rights,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuban revolution historian and senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If you look over the last few years, even before Fidel got sick, you see they’ve been talking about the need to get the state out of the way” to allow farmers and small entrepreneurs to fill the production void.

Sweig said Raul Castro had been “managing expectations” during his brother’s absence but at the same time advancing a national debate on the issues of most concern to Cubans: how to improve their incomes and standards of living.

Those bread-and-butter issues are driving the national debate over how far to tinker with the country’s socialist economic model, rather than political demands for more personal liberty and electoral choices, said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Average monthly income for Cubans is less than $20, and many pensioners scrape by on $5 or $6 a month. Even with a monthly ration of staples that last about 10 days, those without access to dollars from tourists’ tips or relatives’ remittances from abroad often have little more than rice or a bread roll for their meals.

Remittances reach only about one in 10 Cuban households, leaving the vast majority living in conditions that would be considered abject poverty but for the free or subsidized services provided by the government. Analysts estimate that as much as one-third of the Cuban population benefits from the dollar infusion, as those getting help from abroad often spend money on black-market goods and services provided by other Cubans.

As Cuban defense minister, Raul Castro was instrumental in redirecting state and military resources to food cultivation in the difficult years after the Soviet aid cutoff. He deployed troops to the fields to oversee food production and help industries streamline in the absence of fuel and spare parts.

The younger Castro’s defense industry operations, under an economic transformation blueprint drafted by Lage, partnered with foreign investors to develop today’s thriving network of tourist hotels, buses and airlines, bringing in 2 million foreign visitors a year and bolstering hard-currency coffers by $2 billion annually.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and co-chairman of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation think tank, said Raul Castro had been “re-energizing the bureaucracy” of the Cuban leadership during his interim tenure.

“Instead of having fiats from the comandante . . . he’s been energizing [government ministers] and making them responsible for specific functions of the bureaucracy. That’s very encouraging for Carlos Lage or whoever is ultimately the head of state,” said Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who visited Cuba last spring.

Fidel Castro’s position as head of the Communist Party remains arguably the more influential post of the three he has long held as head of state, party and government.

Any resignation of that position would more likely come during a party congress, which has been overdue and much debated behind the scenes in Havana. The last congress was held in 1997, by which time Castro was already working to roll back the reforms embraced during the so-called Special Period in Peacetime that spurred a national mobilization akin to emergency wartime measures.

Castro said in his letter Tuesday that he had deliberately downplayed his likelihood of resuming full powers after his illness to soften the blow to his people should he not survive the long convalescence.

“When referring to my health, I was extremely careful to avoid raising expectations since I felt that an adverse ending would bring traumatic news to our people,” he wrote.

But noting that his “dearest compatriots” had reelected him to the 614-seat National Assembly in a Jan. 20 one-party election, he made it clear that he would serve no more than a symbolic role.

“I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of president of the Council of State and commander in chief,” he told Cubans. “It would be a betrayal of my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.”



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Four who could be handed the reins

Raul Castro

The brother who has filled in since Fidel Castro was sidelined by illness is a pragmatist more concerned with putting food on tables than with spreading revolution abroad.

The outwardly dour 76-year-old lacks his brother’s charisma and has lived in his shadow for decades. But as acting president, Raul Castro has encouraged Cubans to openly debate the shortcomings of communism.

The camera-shy army general has acknowledged that wages paid by Cuba’s socialist state are too low. Yet he is not expected to follow China’s example and free up a market economy, at least not while his brother is alive. And he has promised more socialism.

Since their guerrilla war and the triumph of their revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, Raul Castro has long been his brother’s most trusted right-hand man.

Carlos Lage

The son of Havana laborers became a vice president of the Council of State in 1993, positioning him as the third-most powerful figure, behind the two Castros.

Lage, 56, studied medicine at the University of Havana, earning a degree in pediatrics. He has been involved in politics since his student days, becoming head of the Federation of University Students in 1975.

He was elected to the National Assembly in 1976 and a decade later was recruited by Fidel Castro for the Council of State and the Assistance and Support Team, the strategic planning force from which he gained national attention with his Special Period reforms.

Appointed secretary of the Council of Ministers in 1990, he has served a prime ministerial function, albeit under constant guidance -- some would say intrusion -- from Castro. Although he is thought to support free and direct parliamentary elections and to advocate more private enterprise to boost services and quality of life, his few public expressions on international relations have toed the revolutionary line.

Ricardo Alarcon

The president of the National Assembly serves as the voice of the Havana hierarchy at the annual U.N. General Assembly and on issues of international conflict.

Alarcon, 70, has made the public case for the U.S. extradition of radical anti-Castro exile Luis Posada Carriles for trial in Venezuela, on charges that he bombed a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, as well as for the release of the Cuban Five, jailed in the U.S. since 2001 on espionage charges.

An undergraduate at the University of Havana when Fidel Castro was plotting his revolution, Alarcon served as a leader of the National Student Front, organizing high school and university students in boycotts, building takeovers and street protests. He joined the Foreign Ministry after earning his doctorate and in less than a year was heading the ministry’s Latin American directorate.

In 1966, he was appointed ambassador to the U.N., a post he held until 1978.

Felipe Perez Roque

The youngest of Cuba’s emerging leaders and among the least likely to stray from Castro’s policies, the 42-year-old has been foreign minister since 1999, when he became the first Cabinet member who had been born after the revolution.

A student of electrical engineering at a Havana technical school, Perez Roque followed the well-trodden path to power through the Federation of University Students into the Communist Party ranks in his early 20s.

His activism caught Castro’s eye, and he was submitted as a candidate for the National Assembly in 1986, earning a seat in the rubber-stamp parliament three years before being appointed Castro’s personal secretary and gatekeeper.

Not known to have expressed support for loosening political or economic strictures, he has served as palace bulldog on contentious and internationally sensitive issues.

From Times Staff and Wire Reports