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Cuba’s Slow Motion Change

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
September 12, 2006

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After a flurry of news reports and speculation, the excitement following Fidel Castro’s early August transfer of power to his younger brother Raul finally seems to have died down. The calm dashed the expectations of American Cuba watchers—some of whom had actively hoped for a military coup, while others predicted upheaval in the streets of Havana. In fact, Cuba under Raul’s leadership has been remarkably tranquil. Analysts have grown cautious: Many now say they don’t anticipate any moves toward democracy (Washington Times), even after Fidel Castro’s death.   

Raul, profiled here by NBC’s Robert Windrem, is thought to be more pragmatic on economic matters than Fidel, and he is expected to open the economy somewhat after Fidel’s death. Given the unknown severity of Fidel’s illness and Raul’s advanced age (he’s seventy-five), it’s entirely possible that Raul’s tenure will be a short one. As a result, attention has turned to the layer of figures beneath him (LAT)—Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, and Vice President Carlos Lage. Roque is a hard-liner who wants to maintain Fidel’s socialist model, Alarcon is a moderate and Cuba’s most experienced diplomat, and Lage, who implemented limited economic reforms in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, is seen as an economic pragmatist (ChiTrib). In an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, Brian Latell, former CIA analyst for Cuba and author of After Fidel, thinks the most likely successor for Raul is Carlos Lage, who is “respected equally by Fidel and by Raul.”

Speculation also abounds about Venezuela’s role in a post-Castro Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sends Cuba roughly 100,000 barrels of oil a day for virtually free and is largely responsible for the current stability of Cuban’s economy. Some think that Chavez, who has turned to Castro for ideological guidance in the past, might soon be in the reverse position of influencing the development of a post-Castro Cuba. In the Miami Herald, Hans de Salas-del Valle, a research associate at the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project, says “Other than Raul, there is no one more than Chavez who will influence the future of Cuba.” At the summit meeting of the nonaligned movement of 116 developing nations, held this week in Cuba, Chavez—who has visited Castro three times since his illness was made public—is widely expected to play a leadership role (Reuters).

Chavez’s influence in Cuba is a source of concern for the United States, which recently appointed a new intelligence mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela. The Bush administration announced it had a policy in place for transition to “genuine democracy” in Cuba before Raul took over, endorsing the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba’s call for $80 million in funding to promote democratic succession on the island. In a recent press briefing, Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, emphasized that Cuba must transition to democracy on its own, saying “We’re at this kind of crossroads between hopefulness and fear.” But some experts see U.S. policy toward Cuba as little more than talk. CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig says, “It’s not really the opening of a political negotiation. It’s just a rhetorical statement by the United States that says we’re not interested in actually seriously talking with you, the current Cuban government.” This Backgrounder examines the issues preventing normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

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