Looming government shake-up may indicate Cuba's direction
HAVANA - A technocrat whose reforms are credited with saving Cuba's economy after the Soviet collapse. A former Fidel Castro aide who persuaded the United Nations to condemn Washington's embargo. The Communist Party's international relations man.
These men are the next generation of Cuba's leadership, and their fortunes in the government shake-up coming Sunday will say a lot about where the island is headed now that the 81-year-old Fidel is giving up the presidency.
Parliament will almost certainly keep the Castros in charge by replacing Fidel with his younger brother, Raul. Raul, 76, has been first in line for the presidency for decades and has been acting president since his brother became ill in July 2006.
Already, Raul has spoken of unspecified "structural changes" and called for an open discussion of problems with the system. But it is unclear what kind of economic openings Cuba's communist leadership is willing to allow, and its choice of vice presidents will be crucial in determining whether the president has a mandate for change.
It is up to the National Assembly, the 614-member parliament elected last month, to meet Sunday to select the 31 people who as the Council of State will lead Cuba for the next five years.
On Sunday, the assembly will name the president, first vice president, and five other vice presidents, and 24 other members of the Council of State. Fidel, who was reelected to the National Assembly, could remain on the council but is unlikely to receive a top position.
While nothing is certain, most people expect that Raul will be the next president. The No. 2 slot remains more up for grabs.
The leading candidate is Carlos Lage, who at 56 is a generation younger than the Castro brothers. He is already a vice president, and as Cabinet secretary is a sort of de facto prime minister.
He is credited with designing the modest economic reforms in the early 1990s that helped Cuba survive the Soviet collapse. With Raul's support, Lage pushed through proposals for limited self-employment, foreign investment, cooperative farms, farmers' markets, and the legal use of the US dollar. Those moves created cash flow that improved people's lives without sparking political turmoil many Cubans fear after witnessing the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque has a reputation for more ideological orthodoxy, especially given his seven years as Fidel's personal secretary. He fiercely defended the government's crackdown on dissidents in 2003, calling them mercenaries.
The 42-year-old has a narrower experience in government than Lage. But he has directed Cuba's foreign policy for nine years, and as UN ambassador he is largely credited with orchestrating UN resolutions calling for an end to the US economic embargo.
Less well known is Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, 56, but he is someone to watch. He was chief of Cuba's mission in Washington in 1995-2001. Remirez now serves as the Communist Party's representative abroad and has traveled with Raul to Vietnam and China.
One man who could thwart efforts to put a younger man in the number two spot is Ricardo Alarcon, who would have to resign as president of the National Assembly to take the position. At 70, he is a long shot, but he has wide experience, including a stint as foreign minister and two tours as UN ambassador.