For Castro, a First Step In Calculated Transition

By Karen DeYoung and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Cuban leader Fidel Castro's appointment of his younger brother, Raul, to take over temporarily as president and head of the Communist Party marks the beginning of a long-planned transition designed to maintain iron-fisted control of the island after Fidel Castro's eventual death, administration and intelligence officials said yesterday.

"This is their transition plan out for a test drive, a dress rehearsal," one intelligence official said of the surprise announcement Monday night that the Cuban leader had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and had relinquished "provisional" power to his brother.

Neither Fidel Castro, whose 80th birthday is on Aug. 13, nor Raul, 75, made public appearances yesterday. Meanwhile, the government moved to quell rumors reaching Havana from the jubilant Cuban American community in Miami that Fidel was on the verge of death or had died. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who fled Cuba as a young boy after Castro took over in 1959, said that "it's certainly possible he's not alive now."

But White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration had "no reason to believe" Castro was dead. In a statement that was attributed to Castro and read on Cuban state television last night, the Cuban leader said he was in "stable condition" and "as for my spirits, I feel perfectly fine."

The streets of Havana appeared calm, according to news accounts and sources reached by telephone, and few Cuba experts predicted unrest. The government has taken a harder line against the island's small opposition movement in recent years, most notably cracking down on dissidents and jailing dozens who have spoken out against Castro or the communist system in the past.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy were preparing to block any effort by exiles to storm the island as uncertainty mounted over Castro's condition, according to Martinez, who said he had been briefed on the plans. He compared the situation to that of Spain during the protracted death throes in 1975 of dictator Francisco Franco, whose demise "sort of trickled out day after day."

The Cubans seem to have given some thought to ensuring their announcement projected calm and continuity, one intelligence official said.

The statement issued over Castro's signature late Monday said that hard work "with scarcely any sleep" last month had provoked "an intestinal crisis" requiring "complicated" surgery. He indicated the surgery had taken place and said he would be "resting for several weeks."

Administration officials noted that Castro delivered a two-hour, twenty-minute speech last Wednesday and speculated he had suffered a sudden flare-up of an ulcer or diverticulitis. He has been in visibly declining health for some time and suffers from Parkinson's disease, according to the CIA.

It has long been assumed in Washington and Havana that Raul would take his brother's place. Castro himself announced in early June that his brother was his chosen successor.

"This is an opportunity for them to see how this would work," said the intelligence official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "They're looking at [their own] streets, neighborhoods and places beyond, seeing how people, foreign governments and Cuban Americans react."

Administration officials said they did not expect a change in President Bush's hard-line position of economic sanctions and limited contact with Cuba. In the absence of firm information out of Havana, they restricted their comments to repeating standing policy calling for democratic elections. Snow cautioned against what he called "questions that are premised on the death of somebody who is not dead."

Three weeks ago, the administration released a 40-page report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, with recommendations to hasten the end of Castro's government and assist a future transition to democracy. This year's report from the three-year-old presidential commission, now jointly headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, pledged $80 million in new funding to aid opposition and democratic forces, including Miami-based broadcasts of Radio Marti, but it offered no new policy initiatives.

It warned of Castro's growing alliance with the populist government of Hugo Chávez, president of oil-rich Venezuela, which it called a "Castro-led axis" designed to insulate the Cuban regime from democratic and economic pressures and subvert existing Latin American democracies.

In comments reported yesterday by Prensa Latina, the Cuban government news service, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón said celebrations over Castro's supposed death by "mercenaries and terrorists" in Miami "make me vomit."

Alarcón, a longtime aide to the Cuban leader, said that "imperialism ignores the magnitude of Fidel Castro" and that Castro would always fight until "the last moment." But that moment, Alarcón said, "was still far away."

In addition to avoiding panic at home or abroad, Monday night's statement by Castro appeared to designed to head off any suggestion of a power struggle in Havana. Powerful younger figures, including Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and economic policy chief Carlos Lage Dávila were instructed to continue work on Castro's priorities of health, education and energy under Raul Castro's leadership.

Raul Castro already holds a variety of government and party titles, including defense minister, and is the commanding general of the Cuban armed forces. Although less public than his older brother, he already wielded great power behind the scenes. He has overseen Cuba's military since the beginning, his influence rising as he also gained control over the police force. He has recently begun overseeing tourism -- one of the island's greatest revenue generators -- and placed his military allies in key positions throughout the government.

"There has been a kind of Raul-ista transition in Cuba for some time," said Mark Falcoff, author of the book "Cuba, the Morning After." "From an institutional point of view, this transition is already fairly well advanced."

Raul lacks his brother's public flair, but he is known as a deft consensus-builder who has developed a large cadre of loyal followers during the past four decades.

"He has the loyalty of the senior officer corps," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of the book "After Fidel." "His leadership and management style are very different from his brother's. He earns loyalty and keeps it."

Raul Castro has a "duality of personality," Latell said, "a harsh, brutal, cruel side and a lesser-known sympathetic and compassionate side. The question is which of the two emerges."

The larger question in the minds of many observers is what will happen if both Castro brothers leave the scene. Although five years younger than his brother, Raul, too, is widely believed to be in poor health.

Roig-Franzia reported from Antigua, Guatemala.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company