Fidel's brother seen as economic hope

Cuban interim leader and Defense Minister Raul Castro participates in Cuba's National Assembly key annual session in December 2007.

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Kai Ryssdal: The presidential campaign goes south this weekend. Nope...not South Carolina, although that'll be important, too.

Cubans vote on Sunday for members of the National Assembly. It's the first step in picking a new president once Fidel... y'know. For the past year and a half Raul Castro has run the country. He's widely seen as more pragmatic than his older brother, which has sparked hope economic change may be on the horizon.

From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.


Dan Grech: On Sunday, Cubans will elect the 609 members of the National Assembly. Many people question how democratic this election really is. The delegates are running unopposed, they were selected by a process controlled by the Communist party, and they're aligned with the Castro government.

In March, the National Assembly will name the nation's president and Cuba experts uniformly predict that for the first time in 50 years, Cuba's president won't be a Castro:

Jaime Suchlicki: Well, there's only one leading contender.

Phil Peters: Carlos Lage.

Suchlicki: It's Carlos Lage.

Kirby Jones: Carlos Lage is in his early 50's, pediatrician by training.

Peters: He's long been the second vice president of Cuba. He's known as their economics czar.

Brian Latell: Lage in reality is already a kind of de facto prime minister."

That was Jaime Suchlicki, Phil Peters, Kirby Jones and Brian Latell. Latell, a former intelligence officer, wrote the book "After Fidel."

Latell: That somebody else soon will probably be filling that position, if not his shoes, is really quite an historical event.

Does this mean the Castros will simply fade away? Don't bet on it, says Jaime Suchlicki with the University of Miami. He says Raul Castro simply doesn't like the spotlight of the presidency:

Suchlicki: Carlos Lage is going to be a puppet of Raul Castro. He is not going to be an independent actor and when everyone asks me why Lage doesn't have any power as being the president of Cuba, my answer is how many tanks does he have?

Raul, a four star general, has run Cuba's armed forces for 49 years, longer than any other defense minister in the world. The military also controls the tourism industry, Cuba's main economic engine.

Suchlicki: The military is running more than 50 percent of the economy. The security apparatus is under military control and under Raul, so therefore, that's the real power in Cuba.

Antonio Jorge grew up with Fidel Castro and served for 16 months as Cuba's vice minister of finance. He says Sunday's election, along with Raul Castro's yearlong public conversation on economic reform, aren't about change -- they're about the appearance of change.

The real aim of this exercise: to end the US embargo.

Antonio Jorge: Raul Castro will try to portray this as a true populist political process, in which after extensive discussion of the weaknesses and defects and shortcomings of the regime, now we have a general election and people participate to the tune of 99 percent. So what more can the US ask for?

After all, Cuba would have held elections, and neither Castro ended up as president.

For Cuba, ending the embargo would mean more than an influx of US tourists. It would pave the way for the IMF, the World Bank, and others to begin lending money to Cuba.

Jorge: So Cuba would have a few billion dollars coming its way and that will be a lifeline for the regime.

It's a lifeline that won't be thrown by the Bush administration, as the State Department's Kirsten Madison made clear this week at a conference on Cuba.

Kirsten Madison: Just to preempt everyone who's gearing up to ask the usual question about why we don't just lift the embargo. I want to underscore that we want our businesses to engage in Cuba at a time and in a circumstance that they will be able to reinforce and support a process of change, not reinforce a repressive state.

Still, Brian Latell says a thaw may be coming. One year from now, the US will have a new president, Cuba will have a new president...

Latell: Maybe there will be possibilities for very, very profound change in this 50-year stalemated relationship.

In Miami, I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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