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Cuba's post-Castro transition occurs without major changes

Enemies in exile expected exodus, democracy push

A poster in Havana of President Fidel Castro of Cuba. Officials no longer insist he will return to power. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro's enemies in exile have long predicted that the end of his reign in Cuba would bring dancing in the streets, a mass exodus, and a rapid transition to a US-style democracy and market economy.

But almost six months after Castro stepped aside due to illness, the transition has occurred -- and with none of those changes. Cubans are calmly going about their business, and there has been no northbound rush of migrants and no signs of impending policy shifts.

Even if Castro recovers fully and returns to public life, officials no longer insist that he will return to power. Why would he? Cuban officials already have pulled off what their enemies have long said would be impossible: They have built a post-Castro communist system.

About the only thing different in Cuba is that its government, instead of being led by a single person, is handled by a group. Raul Castro heads a collective leadership guided by the same Communist Party his older brother extolled during a nearly half-century in power.

"These guys know what they are doing. They are prepared to lead Cuba without Fidel," said Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "The country, in the short run, is not going to collapse."

Even a senior US intelligence official said last week that Raul Castro has the support and respect of military leaders critical to ensuring a leadership succession within the existing communist system.

Army Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the temporary president is firmly in control and "will likely maintain power and stability after Fidel Castro dies, at least for the short-term."

Cuban officials say no single person can replace the 80-year-old Maximum Leader, who micromanaged projects, gave marathon speeches, and entertained visitors at dinners lasting until dawn.

Raul Castro, the longtime defense minister, now greets visiting dignitaries and military parades. But he hasn't kept his brother's long hours and reserves his evenings for family.

"The only substitute for Fidel can be the Communist Party of Cuba," the 75-year-old Raul Castro told university students in September.

The most visible official after Raul is Vice President Carlos Lage, who favors a white guayabera dress shirt over fatigues and is said to drive himself around in a boxy little Russian Lada sedan. Lage, 55, exercises wide control over government administration, much like a prime minister.

Lage recently represented Cuba at Bolivia's constitutional convention and presidential inaugurations in Colombia and Ecuador. And when Fidel Castro ceded power in July, he gave Lage sole responsibility for his "energy revolution," the renovation of the country's antiquated electrical grid that is close to Castro's heart.

Castro decreed that five other top officials would share responsibility for other projects important to his legacy in Latin America: Felipe Perez Roque, 41, the foreign minister; Jose Ramon Balaguer, 74, the health minister; Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 76, the longtime Communist Party leader ; Esteban Lazo, 62, the country's most powerful black leader ; and Francisco Soberon, 62, the central bank president.

Fidel Castro did not mention National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon among the group, but the 69-year-old parliament speaker and veteran diplomat could be called on should the United States later accept Raul Castro's offer for dialogue.

With Fidel Castro out of view and the state of his health uncertain, the top priority for these officials is to work for unity.

"There will be no division among Cuban revolutionaries," Lage said at a belated 80th birthday celebration that Castro was too sick to attend. "There will be no ambitions, no egos."