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After Fidel

Who will rule Cuba?

10:35 AM, Feb 19, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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ACCORDING TO BOTH Reuters and AFP, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz resigned Tuesday as president and commander in chief of Cuba. His message was published in the online version of the official daily Cuban news outlet Granma.

"I neither will aspire to nor will I accept--I repeat--I neither will aspire to nor will I accept, the position of president of the council of state and commander in chief," wrote the Cuban dictator, who has been in power now for almost 50 years.

In the summer of 2006 the streets of Havana fell silent and the citizens of the island state headed for their homes in a mixture of curiousity and apprehension to listen to the official government-controlled television news broadcast. The subject: the surprise announcement that the Maximum Leader--Commandante Fidel Castro--had been hospitalized in order to undergo an elaborate surgical procedure brought on by severe gastrointestinal bleeding.

This was the first time since seizing power in 1959 that he temporarily stepped down from his posts as head of state, the communist party chief and Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The Commandante did not even attend his own 80th birthday celebration on 13 August as a result of this illness. Instead of celebrating a milestone in his rule the Cuban state began to slip into a state of crisis over the power vacuum that resulted from Fidel's infirmity.

In the interim, power was been turned over to Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and the island nation's Defense Minister. Like most other senior officials in a communist dictatorship, Raul has numerous positions in government and party organizations--what political scientists refer to as "interlocking memberships"--that make him second in command on the Cuban Council of State.

As far as official titles are concerned, Raul has them in spades: he is Vice President of the Council of Ministers, First Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba, Vice-Secretary of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), and Maximum General of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, and Air Force)--the latter of which makes him second in rank only to the Commander in Chief, Fidel.

Raul has been the unofficially declared successor to his brother for many years so his temporary promotion during this crisis was not a surprise. But what makes many of those now watching events on the Caribbean island nation uneasy is that not much is known about the "No. 2 man in Cuba." His personality is a blank slate, he shuns reporters as ardently as Fidel courts them, and he is the antithesis of his charismatic and dynamic brother.

Who Is Raul?

Anne Louise Bardach, a well-known Cuba watcher and author of numerous articles and books on the subject, describes Raul's unique position of power as "the only member of the ruling cadre who is allowed to opt out of state receptions, meetings and even his brother's interminable speeches. Such absences--and a vigilantly guarded personal life--have made Raul the mystery man of Cuba."

And it is that uncertainty about Raul that gives cause for this anxiety. The Cuban military, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), has--over the last thirty years--evolved from an expeditionary "internationalist" force dedicated to supporting Communist causes around the globe (i.e. the late 1970s-80s operations in Angola) to being a domestically-based force that was dedicated to "securing the gains of the revolution." By 1993, according to Raul, the only Cuban military personnel left stationed abroad were ten military attachés posted to various Cuban diplomatic missions.

Since the last Russian military units were withdrawn from Cuba and the collapse of the massive economic subsidies provided for decades by the USSR, the FAR has had to go into not only the civil defence and internal security business, but also repairing infrastructure and acting in supporting roles in Cuba's broken-down, centrally-planned economy.

A study of the FAR in the early 1990s by Richard L. Millett, an academic from Southern Illinois University, revealed that the military itself was being supplanted by other entities in its role at home as the chief organ responsible for national defense. "While the FAR has been increasingly involved in picking tomatoes, cleaning pipes and digging tunnels, the MTT (Territorial Militia Troops) and other sectors of the government and party have taken growing roles in defence exercises."

Potential Military Instability