Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Post-Castro Cuba already a reality, experts say


Fidel Castro's enemies in exile have long predicted that the end of his reign in Cuba would bring dancing in the streets, a mass exodus and a rapid transition to a US-style democracy and market economy.

But almost six months after Castro stepped aside due to illness, the transition has occurred -- with none of those changes. Cubans are calmly going about their business. There has been no northbound rush of migrants and no signs of impending policy shifts.

Even if Castro recovers fully and returns to public life, officials no longer insist he will return to power.

Cuban officials have pulled off what their enemies have long said would be impossible: Building a post-Castro communist system.

About the only thing different in Cuba is that its government, instead of being led by a single person, is handled by a group. Raul Castro heads a collective leadership guided by the same Communist Party his older brother extolled during a nearly half-century in power.

"These guys know what they are doing. They are prepared to lead Cuba without Fidel," said Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "The country, in the short run, is not going to collapse."

A senior US intelligence official said earlier this month that Raul Castro has the support and respect of military leaders critical to ensuring a leadership succession within the existing communist system.

Army Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the temporary president is firmly in control and "will likely maintain power and stability after Fidel Castro dies, at least for the short-term."

Cuban officials say no single person can replace the 80-year-old Maximum Leader, who micromanaged projects, gave marathon speeches and entertained visitors at dinners lasting until dawn.

Raul Castro, the mustachioed longtime defense minister, now greets visiting dignitaries and military parades. But he hasn't kept his brother's long hours and reserves his evenings for family.

"The only substitute for Fidel can be the Communist Party of Cuba," the 75-year-old Raul Castro told university students last month.

The most visible official after Raul is Vice President Carlos Lage, who favors a white guayabera dress shirt and is said to drive himself around in a boxy little Russian Lada sedan. He exercises wide control over government administration, much like a prime minister.

Lage recently represented Cuba at Bolivia's constitutional convention and presidential inaugurations in Colombia and Ecuador. When Fidel ceded power in July, he gave Lage sole responsibility for his "energy revolution," the renovation of the country's antiquated electrical grid that is close to Castro's heart.

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