State Secret: Is Castro Dead?

Cuban President Fidel Castro, at ceremonies marking the 53rd anniversary of the assault on the Moncada military barracks in Bayamo, in the Granma province, July 26, 2006. The 1953 attack is considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
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.