The Miami Herald
June 25, 2001

 Castro succession a dilema for the U.S.


 U.S. troops and the Coast Guard will be put on a heightened state of alert when President Fidel Castro of Cuba dies, but Washington will then find itself in a significant quandary on how to treat his successors, Cuba analysts say.

 "Any U.S. administration will be reading the tea leaves, poring over any word that [Castro's successors] utter and looking for opportunities,'' said Brian Latell, a retired CIA analyst who spent 25 years studying Cuba.

 Castro's slumping over a lectern Saturday as he gave a speech just outside Havana under a searing sun raised dozens of questions about the succession to a totalitarian ruler in power since President Eisenhower was in the White House.

 Most Cuban affairs experts agree that the chances of an explosion of protests immediately after his death are minimal. The government is likely to announce his death
 only after it has secured the streets with troops and police, they say.

 Under Cuban law, Castro will be succeeded by his brother Raúl, four years younger than the 74-year-old Fidel and now commander of the armed forces and second in command of the government and the Cuban Communist Party.

 Yet under the U.S. Helms-Burton Law, full diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba cannot begin until the island achieves full democracy and frees political prisoners -- and both Fidel and Raúl are out of the picture.

 "Helms-Burton locks Washington into an all-or-nothing approach that may not allow the kind of flexibility that will be required if Raúl succeeds Fidel,'' said a European analyst who asked for anonymity because he still visits Cuba frequently.


 South Florida government and Cuban exile community leaders have long made plans for the day when the man who has controlled Cuba for 42 years dies -- from
 celebratory parades to crowd-control measures.

 But the most immediate concern in Washington would be an immigration crisis -- a massive outflow of rafters similar to the Mariel boatlift in 1980 or the rafter crisis in 1994.

 "You can be sure the Coast Guard and the military at the Guantanamo [Naval] base will be on the highest alert possible at the first sign of instability,'' said a retired U.S. military official once privy to the emergency plans drafted by the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command.

 But in the medium term, the period that U.S. analysts of Cuban affairs often refer to as ``after the funeral,'' the U.S. government will be paying more attention to the
 speeches of whatever ruling clique succeeds Castro.

 "Then the issue would be how much flexibility [Washington would show] if Raúl Castro and his entourage were to signal any significant opening with respect to
 democracy and the political opposition,'' Latell said.

 "Certainly, there would be a dialogue at some level,'' Latell said, ``through the Interests Sections'' -- the offices that Cuba and the United States maintain in each others' capitals in the absence of full diplomatic relations.

 But the outcome of any such exploratory contacts would depend heavily on the policies adopted by Castro's successors -- most likely a leadership system resembling the "collective leadership'' adopted by the Soviet Union after Stalin's death and China after Mao's passing.

 "The odds favor a dynastic succession and praetorian regime dominated by his brother, his generals and a few civilians trusted by the generals,'' said Latell, who teaches at Georgetown University.


 Under such an arrangement, Raúl Castro would be "first among equals,'' representing not only Cuba's politically powerful military but the government's revolutionary roots that stretch back to the early 1950s.

 Raúl is considered more of an orthodox communist than Fidel, and therefore unlikely to allow economic and political reforms similar to those that former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev launched in the 1980s.

 Others in the "collective leadership'' would likely be civilians who represent key sectors of Cuba's power structure.

 The "collective leadership'' would no doubt try to maintain the revolution's socialist principles, its achievements in health and education and its anti-American line for as long as possible, analysts said.

 But they will lack Fidel Castro's historically proven ability to make tough decisions -- and impose them by the force of his will -- in a country beset by a shaky economy and a huge foreign debt, analysts said.

 "That's when the real process of transition will begin, a couple of months after the funeral is over, when they have to make a lot of tough decisions on the country's future,'' Latell said.

 Two other possible scenarios raise concerns among U.S. analysts:

   Raúl Castro could die before his brother, throwing the established succession procedures into doubt. He is reputed to be a heavy drinker, but has not shown any of the signs of aging that his brother has recently displayed.

   Fidel Castro lapses into a coma or some other incapacitating condition that leaves him alive and in power, but physically unable to govern to the best of his abilities.

 But no matter how events surrounding Castro's passing unfold, his successors are soon likely to begin fighting among themselves on the allocation of Cuba's meager
 resources, analysts said.

 "The emergence of these interest groups would be felt within months after the funeral,'' Latell predicted. ``I would think they would have less time than two to three years before some serious instability emerges.''

 The choice facing Cuba's rulers then will be harsh: open the economy more to market forces -- and expose themselves to the virus of democracy -- or attempt to continue Fidel's system of juggling minor openings and tight social and political controls, but without the master juggler.

                                    © 2001