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Once Castro's Gone, What Next?

He overthrew a dictatorship when he was 32 and has ruled a Caribbean island nation for more than four decades. As the last communist ruler in the Western Hemisphere celebrates his 75th birthday, world leaders, devoted supporters and angry exiles have to wonder: What happens to Cuba when Fidel Castro dies?

"There's no one in the world who knows for sure. It's as unpredictable as what's going to happen tomorrow in the stock market," said Max Castro, senior research associate of the North South Center at the University of Miami.

Although official reports on the Cuban leader's health have been few in recent years, people began to closely monitor his condition when he was led away from the lectern during a June 23 speech in Havana. The Caribbean firebrand, known to give excitable seven-hour speeches, seemed to grope for words and then faint after talking for two hours during a live broadcast in 80-degree heat. He returned to the microphones several minutes later to tell the stunned, worried crowd he was fine.

With both his health and the fate of the Cuban presidency in question, the next generation of Cuba - the post-Castro era - may be approaching.

But Cuba's leadership appears to have a predictable future - at least on paper.

The communist country's constitution mandates that the first vice president assume the duties of president of the Council of State in case of absence, illness or death. The National Assembly, Cuba's legislative body, will then meet in a special assembly and either ratify the first vice president as president or choose another leader.

Selecting the President
If the president of the Republic of Cuba should die, the following procedure will take place according to the Cuban constitution:
  • The first vice president of the Council of Ministers will temporarily assume the president's role in case of absence, illness, or death of the president. (Article 94)
  • The National Assembly, Cuba's legislative body, will then meet in a special assembly to decide whether to ratify the first vice president as president or choose someone else.
  • If the first vice president becomes president, then he/she may nominate someone to hold the position of first vice president.
  • The National Assembly votes to decide who the first vice president will be.
  • "Raúl (Castro) is in line. If Fidel dies, Raúl will take over but it's temporary position," said Nelson P Valdes, director
    of the Program of Academic Research of Cuba at the University of Mexico and
    president of the Cuba Analysis Group. "I have no doubt that Raúl Castro will be the next person who will head the Council of State and the Council of Ministers."

    Raúl Castro, 70, is the younger brother of Fidel. However, this biological relationship is not the only qualification he possesses.

    Raúl serves as Cuba's first vice president of both the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and as minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. He became leader of the military in 1959 when he and Fidel overthrew the Fulgencio Batista government with a force of 800 guerrillas. Although the two brothers share a similar history, Fidel and Raúl possess individual qualities that distinguish one Castro from the other.

    "Raúl Castro does not have the breadth of power that Fidel Castro has. He does not have the power of persuasion or the power of experience of being at the top," Max Castro said. "He will have the powers of state and reward of depression, but that's not as full a set of resources as his older brother has."

    Another element that distinguishes Fidel from Raúl is the fact that only one of the brothers - Fidel - received the credit for the Cuban revolution by ousting Batista, said Pamela S. Falk, professor of international law at the City University of New York School of Law. Although the two struggled side-by-side through the revolutionary days in Mexico and the Cuban mountains, Falk said Fidel - older by four years - has the reputation of having been more committed to the revolution.

    "Raúl is not seen as the leader of the revolution. Fidel Castro is," Falk said.

    Without the "championed" leader of the revolution as president and without the leader of the military as first vice president, the Cuban government most likely will undergo a transformation. Some Cuban experts predict that the significant political power held in the current positions of president and first vice president will be decentralized and the political authority will be disbursed among several government officials.

    "I think a joint group will be appointed to run Cuba. Fidel has said over the past few years that he wants Raúl to be his successor. But, Raúl doesn't like the spotlight," said Jaime Suchlicki, professor and director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at Miami University. "I think Raúl will run the operation from behind the scenes and appoint a civilian to be in the spotlight."

    But ask hard-line, anti-Castro exiles living in the United States what they expect from a Cuban government without Castro and the response is significantly different.

    "Everyone inside the island and throughout the world knows that communism has been a complete disaster for the Cuban people. Enemies and government cronies alike know that the regime wil not be able to survive post-Castro," said Miguel Talleda, national executive secretary and California coordinator of the paramilitary group Alpha 66.

    While many opposing post-Castro predictions exist, Cuba experts can name several Cuban government officials considered the most likely candidates for a collective leadership: National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, Council of Ministers Secretary and Council of State Vice President Carlos Lage, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Felipe Pérez Roque.

    These men may or may not rise to be a transition leader, a next-generation leader or a behind-the-scenes leader. Regardless, any change in Cuban leadership will be a drastic measure because the loss of Fidel will be a shock to the people of Cuba.

    "The Cubans have lived with this figure at the top of the government for 42 years. That is something very unusual. For some people, it will be hellacious. For some people, it will be depressing. But it will be a shock," Max Castro said.

    The Miami community, consisting of a large Cuban exile population, will react to Fidel Castro's death, as well.

    "The reaction in Miami over the death of Fidel Castro will be a bittersweet experience," said Max Gomez, Alpha 66 coordinator for Northern California. "They will be happy that their tormentor is gone. But every minute of suffering, every death by firing squad, the crossing of the Florida Straits and the struggles to survive here in this country, all of those memories will come back like a flood, and we will experience it all over again."

    Although Fidel Castro's death will stir emotions in Cuba and Miami, this emotion may not necessarily turn violent.

    "Chaos? I don't think there will be a rebellion in the streets. I think the Cuban government would hold it pretty tight," Falk said.

    Carlos Alberto, president of the Cuban Liberal Union, agreed that the succession will most likely be a nonviolent one, but he said Raúl Castro's actions will be the determining factor in whether peace in Cuba will continue.

    "This all depends on the degree of Raúl's flexibility. If he tries to keep the regimen intact, without changing to a more open government and economy, it is possible that violence might surge," Alberto said.

    Although U.S. government officials did not want to speculate on a "hypothetical" violent transfer of leadership, a U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said the United States would prefer to see a political and social transformation similar to those that took place in the former Soviet Union and other European communist nations in the early 1990s.

    "We hope there will be a peaceful transition to democracy with free and fair elections. The Cuban people should have the right to select their own leaders," said the official from the Bureau of the Western Hemisphere.

    But some people disagree with the possibility of a peaceful succession.

    "Violence will definitely occur in Cuba, there is no doubt about hat," Alpha 66's Gomez said. "No matter who it is that takes over after Fidel is gone, they will be met with stiff opposition from the population."

    An official contacted at the Cuba Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Havana would not comment on a future government transition and messages for officials at the Cuba Interest Section in Washington, D.C., went unanswered.

    However, current talk of Fidel's death and his potential successor, may be premature.

    Fidel's Spanish-born father, Angel Castro, lived to be 81 years old. Fidel's older brother, Ramón, is in his 80s and still runs the largest dairy farm in Cuba. Although several years ago, Fidel Castro gave up smoking his favorite Cohiba cigars, he can still be seen marching at the front of parades in his trademark olive-green uniform and he can still rally the Cuban people, evident in the international custody battle over shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez.

    No one knows when the succession will happen and no one can be certain how the Cuban government will operate. Most experts are certain Raúl will take over the presidency, should Fidel die in the near future. However, those are just short-term predictions concerning a man whose 42-year-reign has outlasted 10 American presidents.

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