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State Secret: Is Castro Dead?

This column was written by Mario Loyola.

In Communist societies, the fall of a dictator is often marked by a public statement about the dictator's failing health that (a) doesn't make sense, and (b) is not delivered by the dictator himself. That's what we saw on Monday night, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro issued a "letter to the people" in which he explains that he had suffered intestinal bleeding due to stress, needed an operation, and would be in bed for several weeks. The missive was coldly Orwellian in how little it said about Castro — and in how much detail it gave about those who were now "temporarily' assuming power.

The next day another Cuban official read a more entertaining letter in which Castro purports to explain (again in pure Newspeak) that because of the imminent threat from the United States, the details of his health are now a state secret. But there's only one detail about Castro's health that could possibly be a state secret: that he's dead.

Sure, he could be in a coma. But any student of Communism can say now with certainty that his reign is over. The only thing his heirs care about now is figuring out who really controls the estate — and who's going to end up with it.

Castro's non-death declaration — essentially his last will and testament — leaves a series of key posts and control of the state budget to several senior leaders. But it only establishes the initial position of the players. The real game starts now, as the realities of internal power dynamics start making for unexpected conflicts and strange bedfellows. This unstable phase of the struggle for succession is highly characteristic in Communist regimes. It may last many weeks or months, and it is doubtful, if history is any guide, that all of the initial players will survive — literally. And in this case it is almost inconceivable that when the dust settles, we will still be looking at a Communist regime.

So who are Castro's heirs? The four big ones are:

Raúl Castro: Currently defense minister, he is the anointed successor to his elder brother's post. He is remembered as one of the most brutal of the revolution's original leaders. Just a few months after the fall of strongman Fulgencio Batista, he executed scores of former army and police officers by machine gun, disposing of them in a mass grave. More recently, he has turned the armed forces into a sprawling fiefdom with its own farms, resorts, and industrial holdings. He rarely speaks in public, is reputed to be a heavy drinker, rarely gives interviews and is not particularly well-liked. The reality of his power base lies not in his popularity nor much less in the Castro's will, but rather in the fact that the succession to him has been in train for decades. Men loyal to Raúl are in key positions of national, provincial, and municipal power throughout Cuba. Raúl still romanticizes the early years of the revolution as if they had happened yesterday. In fact, he would rather not talk about anything that happened after the vertiginous failure of his brother's economic policies — in 1961. There is reason to hope that he has lost interest in the Revolution generally, aside from its perks, and may not have as much stomach for mass executions as he once did.

Yearbook entry: Most likely to have the circumstances of his death explained by doctors.

Felipe "Filipito" Pérez Roque: Currently foreign minister, Castro ascended him to his current role after many years as personal secretary. Only 41 years old, he is known as Castro's attack dog, perhaps the most frothing castrista of the senior leaders. A lifetime of utter dependence on Castro might not have left him in the most favorable position as a potential successor. And as the foreign minister who helped make Cuba the bride of Hugo Chavez, and then watched as Cuba became yesterday's thrill in the bordelo boliviariano, Filipito may have made lots of enemies along the way.

Yearbook entry: Most likely to become chicharrón in time for New Year's.

Carlos Lage Dávila: Currently a vice president in Cuba, and by training a doctor, Lage is an example of the Revolution's second-generation technocrat whiz-kids, who excel in extracting a few pennies from Castro's poverty machine. He is held in high regard as an international negotiator, and appears to be well-liked in Europe. As Castro's right hand during the "Special Period" that followed the end of Soviet subsidies in 1989, Lage spent a great deal of time developing a series of "mixed-economy" proposals — almost all of which Castro ultimately rejected. Lage's influence waned after that, but not greatly. The Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner calls Lage the "pitiful manager of the madhouse." Lage has shown a worrisome facility for being dominated by Castro, and on a recent trip to Venezuela, Lage groveled to the Bolivarian Revolution, saying that Cuba has two presidents: "Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez." Nevertheless, his brains, experience, and reputation are his power base. Along with Francisco Soberón Valdés, head of the Central Bank, he is be viewed by many in and out of the regime as a needed technocrat.

Yearbook entry: Least likely to be invited to family parties by future colleagues in Cuba's first post-communist government.

Ricardo Alarcón: Currently president of the National Assembly, Alarcón is the most subtle and impenetrable of Cuba's current leaders. Elected head of the student federation in the early 1960s, he was the first major young technocrat produced by the Revolution. He quickly rose to become Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations, and then held a variety of senior posts at the United Nations itself. Tapped briefly as foreign minister in the early 1990s, Castro appointed him to preside over the National Assembly less than a year later. There has always been speculation whether this was a demotion. The move is probably better understood as Castro eliminating a potential competitor who may have proven less than loyal to the Revolution during the Special Period — when Castro came closest to losing his grip on power. A tireless opponent of the embargo, Alarcón has argued forcefully for access to international commerce and microfinancing — things that many of Castro's most inveterate enemies in Miami have advocated as ways to bring down the regime. He was not mentioned at all in Castro's will — nor, as a legislator, should he have expected it. Apart from reputation, it is not clear what his power base really is: He spent most of the first three decades of the Revolution living in New York, and since returning to Cuba has held a largely ceremonial post. But if in the tumult of succession, something terrible should happen to Raúl without a supreme leader formally in place, the National Assembly would then decide who leads— as Alarcón once explained in an interview.

Yearbook entry: Most likely to deal the Revolution its death blow while chanting its hymns.

It would be natural to expect that these four will rule as a committee under the nominal leadership of Raúl, but history suggests that such an arrangement will not be long-lived. Besides the internal power struggle that is now under way, there will be several sources of pressure on the new Cuban government. First, there are increasing signs that Cuba's dissidents are gaining renewed strength — especially around Osvaldo Payá's "Varela Project." Second, independent pro-democracy groups such as Cuban Consensus and Roots of Hope have sprung to advocate principles of dialogue and mutual respect that enjoy increasingly vocal support both in Cuba and in the United States. Third, the U.S. is now more likely to craft a Cuba policy that serves some interest other than political expediency — for pretty much the first time in 50 years. And finally, and most important, Cubans are simply sick of Communism — all of them, all the way up the chain of command. How all this plays out is something that common Cubans will ultimately decide.

Meanwhile, it is satisfying to see how perfectly and inevitably Castro's life is coming to a Stalinesque end. It was on March 4, 1953, that the Kremlin announced that Joseph Stalin had suffered a stroke four days earlier, and that power would temporarily be held by a group of senior leaders. On March 6, it was announced that Stalin had died the night before. At his funeral, three of the new leaders made speeches, the order of the speakers marking the new order of precedence.

Less than two weeks after that, the new premier (Malenkov, the most senior party leader after Stalin) was forced to resign his most important post. By the end of the year, the second (Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police) had been secretly arrested and executed. Two years after that, the third (Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister) was named ambassador to Mongolia.

Out of nowhere, Nikita Khruschev had emerged to assume complete control of the Soviet Union. And of course, one fine day many years later, it was announced (and not by him) that Khruschev had resigned all political offices, due to old age and deteriorating health.… And on and on went the history of the Soviet Union, until the day it finally died, when a group of would-be coup leaders explained in a press conference that Premier Gorbachev had been taken ill, and some reporters just started laughing.

Mario Loyola is a former assistant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense.

By Mario Loyola
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online