Cuba’s Castro may soon end mystery over his future
HAVANA – A year and a half after he last appeared in public, the mystery of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s political future could be revealed later this month.
Will the 81-year-old Castro call it a day or will he hang on to power until the end?
On February 24, Cuba’s National Assembly legislature will meet to ratify the country’s top executive body, the Council of State. The council’s president is Cuba’s head of state and the meeting could mark the end to Castro’s 49-year grip on power.
He underwent emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 and handed over control “temporarily” to his brother Raul. Since then, Castro has only been seen in video and pictures looking gaunt and frail, and could now seize the moment to formally put Raul in charge of the communist government.
Raul Castro, 76, has raised expectations of economic changes to kick-start an inefficient state-run economy and improve the daily lot of Cubans, and analysts say a formal transfer of power would allow him to push through reforms.
But they are not sure it will happen.
“I think we will see the same old faces in the same old places,” said a skeptical European ambassador.
The seasoned diplomat said he expected Castro to be proclaimed president and then cede power again on an interim basis to Raul Castro.
“The February 24 parliamentary meeting provides the perfect opportunity for the Cuban leadership to resolve once and for all the mystery surrounding Fidel’s future. However, it is not clear they will take it,” said Dan Erikson, an expert on Cuba at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
He said many of Cuba’s top leaders would no doubt like to see a formal transfer of power to a younger generation, while Fidel Castro takes on a more ceremonial role.
Castro has kept himself in the public mind writing prolific quantities of articles published by Cuba’s state newspapers and repeatedly broadcast on radio and television.
In December, the bearded “Comandante” hinted that he would hang up his gloves, writing that he had no intention of clinging to power or standing in the way of younger leaders.
But so far, he and his brother have kept their cards close to their chests, and kept the country guessing.
Castro’s retirement from political office would close an era that began when he came to power in an armed revolution in 1959 and turned Cuba into a Soviet ally off the U.S. coast in the midst of the Cold War.
For two young actors — Andy and Betsy — hitching a ride to work on Havana’s Malecon seafront, Castro’s place in history means little. They are looking ahead, eager for changes to the restrictions they face on Internet access and travel abroad.
“It’s not a problem of one person. It’s a whole system, and the people who run it want to stay where they are,” said Andy, who did not want to be fully named for fear of reprisal. “They know that any change will bring the whole edifice down.”
Cuban intellectuals are more hopeful that change is possible under Raul Castro, the long-time defense minister, as he has encouraged debate on how to fix Cuba’s problems.
“Important economic reforms will be announced in March,” said a Havana University economist who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to a foreign journalist. “But first there has to be a political decision at the top.”
The European ambassador said real change in Cuba would only come when presidential power was handed to a younger leader, such as Vice President Carlos Lage, the architect of reforms that opened up Cuba to foreign investment and tourism in the 1990s.
“Raul will not move while Fidel is around. There are too many vested interests in the political bureaucracy,” he said.
Cubans who believe in the socialist system built by Castro still hope to see him reappear, if only to say good-bye.
Julio, a former Interior Ministry employee, believes Castro will be acclaimed president on February 24 only to decline the job on health grounds.
“If he is fit to appear in public, he will be there, because it will be his political good-bye,” he said.