By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008 3:43 PM
The formal end of Fidel Castro's nearly 50-year rule in Cuba opens the prospect of more free-market economic reforms, but sweeping political changes are not immediately likely, according to analysts who monitor events in the Communist island nation.
The first clues to any new direction following Castro's announcement of his retirement today will likely come Sunday, when Cuba's 614-seat legislature, the National Assembly of People's Power, appoints a new Council of State, including a new president.
Castro today essentially directed the assembly not to name him president, as it has done repeatedly over the years. The ailing, 81-year-old Cuban leader said in a published letter, "I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of president of the State Council and commander in chief."
Although it has been widely assumed that Castro's younger brother, Raul Castro, would officially succeed him, there is a chance that the council could move toward a younger generation of leaders, analysts said. Among those mentioned as a possible successor is Carlos Lage, 56, a pediatrician who currently serves as a vice president and as executive secretary of the Council of Ministers.
After undergoing stomach surgery, Castro on July 31, 2006, transferred power on a provisional basis to his 76-year-old brother, a general who holds the title of first vice president.
Regardless of who formally succeeds the aging Communist chief, Cuba-watchers see little prospect of the kind of political changes demanded by U.S. leaders or the Cuban exile community. Considered more likely are gradual attempts to reform the Cuban economy along the lines that have proved so successful in China, where a burgeoning private sector has helped turn the country into an economic powerhouse under continuing tight one-party control.
Raul Castro has spoken admiringly of the Chinese economy in a way that his brother never has, said Raj M. Desai, a professor of international development at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Cuba's leaders likely will "want to pursue an incremental, gradual approach to reform" that does not privatize the large state-run sector but allows a new private sector to grow alongside it, said Desai, who closely monitors developments in Cuba. However, the Cuban leadership may find that incremental steps do not have much impact in solving the nation's economic problems, including food scarcities and stagnant wages, he said.
According to Vicki Huddleston, a Latin America expert at Brookings who once served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, the departure of Fidel Castro likely means that "Raul can move forward a little more quickly on economic reforms."
"With the great revolutionary gone, that means things can begin to open up, but slowly and not in a way that's going to push anyone out of power," she said. While no change in the Communist one-party system is in the offing, she said, the leadership could allow Cubans to exercise a bit more personal freedom, for example, in expressing opinions and traveling internally.
The new leaders could "be nicer to dissidents," Huddleston said, "but they're not going to tolerate anything that would in any way shake the foundations of the revolution." She said Raul Castro is the most likely successor, at least for a couple of years, because "there isn't really anyone who's ready quite yet to step in and replace the Castro name and the revolutionary credentials that it carries."
According to Desai and some other analysts, however, there is a growing possibility that the National Assembly could pass over Raul Castro in favor of a younger leader such as Lage. Not much is known about Lage, but he has gained a reputation as a leading adviser to Fidel Castro and an economic fixer who promoted reforms in the early 1990s that permitted Cubans to set up small businesses and own limited amounts of land.
Lage has emerged as one of the more popular Cuban leaders and could be seen as someone better able to deal with the population's "growing restlessness," Desai said. But he cautioned that even if Lage did get the nod from the National Assembly, he could turn out to be no more than a transitional figure, if the experience of former Communist states in Eastern Europe is any guide.
Although he reportedly speaks English and has dealt with European leaders, Lage so far has given no indication that he would be an agent of political change. In a speech to the Ibero-American Summit in 2002, he harshly criticized the United States, charging that it "protects and encourages terrorism against Cuba."
Clearly, no immediate successor to Castro is likely to meet demands from the United States for the kind of political changes that would bring a lifting of the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Reacting to Castro's announcement, President Bush today expressed hope during a trip to Africa that it would mark "the beginning of the democratic transition in Cuba."
The U.S. presidential candidates applauded Castro's departure and urged Cuban leaders to open the country to democratic ideals and elections and to release political prisoners. They promised to respond favorably to such improvements.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the retirement "nearly half a century overdue." The GOP presidential contender said in a statement on his Web site: "Yet freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand, and the Castro brothers clearly intend to maintain their grip on power. That is why we must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections."
McCain added: "Cuba's transition to democracy is inevitable. . . . With the resignation of Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have an opportunity to move forward and continue pushing for the moment that they will truly be free. America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba. The Cuban people have waited long enough."
His opponent in the Republican primary, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, said on his Web site, "The Cuban people deserve nothing less than free and fair elections."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Castro's departure represents "an essential first step" in ending a dark era of Cuban history, "but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba."
"If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades," he said in a statement.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) released a statement directed at the new Cuban leaders promising that "the people of the United States are ready to meet you if you move forward towards the path of democracy, with real, substantial reforms."