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Life after Castro likely to involve many of the same players as now.

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro's fainting spell last weekend in Havana has triggered swarms of rumors about what was wrong with him and touched off speculation about what will come once the aging dictator exits the scene.

Castro was two hours into one of his famous rambling speeches when he suddenly slumped forward at the podium. State television cut to a shot of the concerned crowd he had been addressing. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque took the stage to calm the crowd and a few minutes later, Castro returned to explain that he was tired after having had no sleep the night before and had fallen victim to the tropical sun and humidity. He finished his speech in the evening on television, seated in an air conditioned studio.

The incident rekindled talk about the health of the aging leader, who turns 75 in August. Although he is thought to be in generally good health, he has had several moments recently in which he appeared confused. However, he still regularly gives speeches lasting several hours at a time and frequently meets with visiting dignitaries for hours on end. It's impossible to know anything about the state of his health with any certainty. Rumors that he is seriously ill with, among other maladies, cancer, Parkinson's disease and heart ailments, are just talk.

The incident has high-lighted the issue of succession in the Cuban government as never before. Castro currently holds four key positions in the Cuban hierarchy: president (head of state), prime minister (head of government), First Secretary of the Communist Party and commander in chief of the military. In addition to this monopoly over the key levers of power, Castro oversees an extensive internal security system and still retains the respect and support of most ordinary Cubans.

However, particularly over the past decade, as the country has been impoverished by mismanagement, the loss of economic support from the former Soviet Union and the impact of the US economic embargo, passion for Castro has diminished considerably. In addition, in recent months, top officials have begun to speak of life after Castro.

Party line to outlast Castro

His brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro is the heir designate. Several months ago, Raul advised the United States to make a deal with Fidel to normalize relations now, before he took over and the country entered a period of socialist orthodoxy. Vice President Carlos Lage commented that Castro is in good health and insisted that there will be continuity in Cuba. "There will be no post-Castro era," he said. "And not because he won't die; Fidel's ideals and the ideals of socialism are every day more entrenched in our country." Other officials also insist that Cuba will remain a socialist country without a multiparty political system after Castro departs.

Initially, they are most likely correct. In the early 1990s, the government established a succession procedure. In the event of the death or incapacitation of Fidel, the Politburo, a kind of supercabinet dominated by loyal followers of Castro, would name a successor and discuss possible changes in the structure of the government. This proposal would have to be approved by the Council of state, another cabinet-type organization, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Once it is approved, the National Assembly must then vote to approve any changes in personnel or government structure. The entire process is supposed to take a maximum of 48 hours, during which time Raul is in charge.

Votes could bring surprises

There is significant potential for surprises during this process. First, no single person will assume all of the positions held by Castro now. Power will be divided among a small group of officials, including National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Vice President Carlos Lage, Perez Roque, Raul Castro and Fidel's close friend Carlos Manuel Valenciaga all are in line to take over one of Castro's posts.

However, many of these people are on one or more of the committees that will allocate Castro's positions in the first two days after his departure. This could lead to bickering as the three committees work to draft and approve succession documents.

The National Assembly vote also could produce some surprises. Since 1992, all votes in key Cuban institutions, including the communist party and the National Assembly, are secret. This has led to some unexpected outcomes in past votes, including occasional ballots cast against Castro and other top officials at assembly and party elections. The assembly likely would vote according to the dictates of the three committees overseeing the succession, but depending on circumstances, there could be some dissent.

Castro could begin changes now

A final option for succession is a bid to reshuffle the government before Fidel exits the scene. Under this scenario, first proposed in 1990, Castro would retain his position as president, but relinquish his control of the party and military, as well as his post as prime minister. The National Assembly would have to approve most of the changes but Castro could dictate them.

Most of the officials that would be expected to take over new posts in a major succession, Alarcon, Perez Roque, Valenciaga and Lage are relatively young. Raul would be among the oldest in the new guard and although he is designated as Fidel's number two in all posts, he is said to not be interested in the more public positions, such as president and prime minister. He is expected to try to wield power largely from behind the scenes.

There are strong incentives for the new leadership to remain united. None has the prestige that Fidel does and any public rivalries likely would weaken their effectiveness. In addition, the new leadership will have to work quickly to revive the economy. Fidel gets the benefit of the doubt from a population weary of poverty, but the younger generation of leaders will face demands for quick improvements. Any internal dissention will impair the leadership's ability to produce results and keep demands for multiparty democracy and a greater voice in political and economic decision-making to a minimum.

But in the end, it appears unlikely that the Cuban population, which has withheld its demands for change out of respect for Fidel Castro and fear of his police apparatus, will not defer their demands for improvement forever. A troika - or more - of communists trying to maintain the status quo will have little chance of surviving once the country's rallying point exits the scene unless there are significant changes.
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Title Annotation:Fidel Castro, President
Publication:America's Insider
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jun 28, 2001
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