Looking at Cuba After Castro

He has survived the Cold War, nine American presidents, and innumerable attempts on his life, but as Cuban President Fidel Castro marks his 75th birthday today, many people are wondering what will happen after he dies.

The Cuban leader celebrated deep in the Venezuelan jungle with President Hugo Chavez and Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Chavez, a former revolutionary himself, gave Castro his first army rifle and a statue of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, Latin American press agencies said.

In Cuba, citizens feted the leader in his absence, cutting cakes, singing songs and holding marches in his honor. "We Cubans wake up happy today," wrote Susana Lee for the ruling Communist Party's daily Granma.

But the leader appears to be showing his age. He stumbled when reporters mobbed him this weekend, and during another part of his trip, he repeatedly complained about the heat.

It's not clear what will happen to Cuba after Castro. But one thing most experts can agree on is that the next president of the island nation will be his younger brother by four years, Raul.

On June 23, the Cuban leader collapsed from heat exhaustion two hours into a speech, raising fears that his end was near.

After the incident, Castro told reporters: "If they tell me tomorrow morning, 'You're having a heart attack,' a sudden death or if I have an accident . . . and I go to sleep for eternity, Raul is the one with most authority and experience."

Raul is head of Cuba's armed forces and No. 2 in the political hierarchy.

A Contradiction in Terms

Raul has often been described as "pragmatic" — but that doesn't necessarily mean he is reform-oriented, said Dennis Hays, a former State Department official and now a spokesman for the anti-Castro lobby group, the Cuban-American National Foundation.

"He's more ruthless than his brother," said Hays, adding that the pragmatism would only go towards perpetuating the regime.

Antonio Jorge, a professor at Florida International University, agrees with the assessment, but also notes Raul has been widely recognized as a more orthodox Communist than his brother.

"His inner feelings are in favor of a Stalinist regime, [but] he's practical enough to seek accommodation," Jorge said.

Still, that's no reason for optimism. Jorge said others around Raul may be not be as flexible as some of his cadres, and democracy activists might appeal to someone less prominent.

"Can he bring the country to democracy?" Hays asked. "No, absolutely not."

Immediate Reactions, Predicted

The transition from Fidel to Raul would likely be uneventful, experts said, discounting the likelihood of a military coup or popular uprising upon news of Castro's death.

High-ranking military officials are pretty uniformly loyal to the regime, Jorge said. Anyone with a question mark over their loyalty finds themselves transferred often. A domestic spy network also keeps insurgency at bay.

Jorge noted that most Cubans had little or no access to firearms. There are few civil organizations of any kind, he said, and added that many Cubans were dispirited and pessimistic about their future.

Castro is also treated for his ailments in private, sources say, so the regime would be able to keep a lid on any news of his death until they had a firm grip on security.

Instead, most experts said the new regime would initially close ranks to protect against common enemies, and then attempt to make a little political ground by appearing to make reforms.

"They'll announce minor changes, let go a political prisoner or two [to convince the world they were reforming,]" said Hays, adding that most of these changes would likely only be cosmetic.

They won't do anything to jeopardize their position of power, he said.

Looking to the Future

True democratic reform only has a chance after Raul, according to most analysts.

Like Mao, Tito and Stalin before him, Castro is a charismatic revolutionary figure — but Raul doesn't have the same presence and when he takes over he may be forced to adopt other methods to retain loyalty.

Hays predicted that after his ascension, Raul would award many of the country's prime enterprises and properties to the military or other power-brokers.

However, the prizes will only delay an inevitable power struggle that's expected to emerge as each member of the new power structure acts to maintain and extend their interests.

"It seems to me many of the people who are rational, intelligent people who definitely want to continue to enjoy the privileges of power will seek ways to normalize and legitimize their position," Jorge said, adding that some of them may think the best way to stay in power is to introduce democratic reforms.

Even more impetus may come from the Cuban people, who have suffered economically for so long out of their admiration for the charismatic Comandante. "There won't be any possible rational motivation, to keep going on in sacrifice," Jorge said.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act prohibits full diplomatic and trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba until the island achieves full democracy and frees political prisoners, and both Fidel and Raul are out of power.

Hope and Despair

However, if Washington eases up on the new regime because it appears to have reformed itself, Hays fears that Cuba would simply become "a more efficient dictatorship."

He expressed worries that Cuba might become like China.

"We see it all the time ... most people can't name a political prisoner in Cuba," he said, drawing a comparison to the Czech Republic, and how it emerged from Communism with the help of famous dissident Vaclav Havel.

But Jorge says the parallels between Cuba and many of the new democracies in Eastern Europe are already there — and comparisons to China and the Soviet Union don't fit.

"There's no question that Cuba has had more experience with democratic institutions than the Soviet Union or China."

The island, in fact, has more than 50 years of history as a republic — and that, he said, made him believe that Cuba could one day move into democracy.