By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 22, 2006
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 21 -- Raul Castro has set a surprising new tone for Cuban politics, telling university students in Havana that they should debate "fearlessly" and bring their concerns directly to him.
Castro's remarks, published Thursday by the Communist Party newspaper, Granma, are the clearest indication yet of how he might reshape Cuba after the death of his ailing brother, Fidel Castro. Raul Castro told the students that his brother is "irreplaceable."
"Fidel cannot be replaced unless all of us replace him together, each in his or her own place, carrying out his or her concrete task," Raul Castro was quoted as saying. "Only the Communist Party of Cuba can replace Fidel."
Raul Castro, who is Cuba's defense minister, tempered his remarks by telling the students that a "unified command" is a key military principle, but "that doesn't mean that discussions can't happen."
The notion of freewheeling political debate is almost unheard-of in Cuba, where many residents fear repercussions if they criticize the government. But it is not without precedent. At one time, Raul Castro encouraged open debate, including criticism of the government, at Cuba's military college. Such debate has been reined in over recent years, but some experts say they think Raul Castro could one day introduce a similar system of free speech in Cuban society.
"It's true that Raul Castro has tried over the years to open spaces for conversation," Jorge Domínguez, a Mexican political analyst who has written extensively about Cuba, said in an interview from Harvard University, where he is teaching this winter.
Granma articles are often used as propaganda vehicles by the Cuban government. Analysts said the article featuring Raul Castro's remarks appeared to address the perception that he is cold and uncharismatic, noting that he delivered his remarks with "customary joviality" and "shared anecdotes" about his childhood.
"That's important," Domínguez said. "He doesn't speak well, and he doesn't look good on television, but Raul Castro is a very likable person in small groups."
Raul Castro, who has been Cuba's acting president since his brother's July 31 intestinal surgery, also seemed to be defining himself and, more important, distinguishing himself from his brother. Granma reported that he told the students he would not follow his brother's example and deliver an extensive speech at a convention of the University Student Federation.
Although Fidel Castro appointed his brother interim president, Raul Castro still seems reluctant to seize the official mantle of power while his brother is alive. The Granma article refers to him as the leader of Cuba's military, the second secretary of the Communist Party and the first vice president of the state council. But it never calls him president.