Fidel Castro’s illness sets stage for collective leadership
The Associated PressHAVANA – From his sickbed, Fidel Castro has set the stage for a more collective style of governance in a country long used to a single strongman, selecting six trusted comrades to run key projects while his brother acts as president and head of the Communist Party.The division of powers gives the first solid indication of the direction the Cuban government is likely to take after Castro’s death.In a statement announcing his illness Monday night, Castro said his brother and longtime Defense Minister Raul Castro was in charge of the government, the ruling party and the military during a recovery expected to take weeks.But Castro distributed responsibility for running and funding his pet projects among six men, including Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Central Bank President Francisco Soberon.He also named the Communist Party as the guiding force for ensuring his instructions were followed.”There is no doubt that our people and our Revolution will fight to the last drop of blood to defend these and other ideas and measures that are necessary to safeguard this historic process,” Castro wrote.Raul Castro recently hinted at a shared future style of governance, noting that his brother was a singular type of leader and saying the party – not any individual – would be Castro’s true successor.The elder Castro, 79, is famous for wanting to have a say in virtually every area of the island’s governance.The party newspaper Granma underscored that point Thursday, saying “the special confidence the people grant the founding leader of a revolution cannot be transmitted as if were an inheritance to those who will occupy the top positions in the country in the future.”On Thursday, Raul Castro still had not been seen in public and there continued to be no official updates on Fidel Castro’s condition.Next to his brother, Castro gave the heaviest responsibilities to Lage, charging him with overseeing his ongoing “energy revolution” – a massive renovation of the island’s antiquated electrical grid.A generation younger than Castro at 54, Lage is credited with helping save Cuba’s faltering economy after the Soviet Union broke up, designing modest economic reforms that allowed foreign investment in state enterprises and legalized the use of the U.S. dollar. Those reforms have been rolled back as the economy improves.Trained as a pediatrician, Lage is a mild-mannered man with a balding pate and pleasant face often sent to represent Cuba at international gatherings. He has wide control over government administration and holds key positions in the Council of State and Politburo.Representing an even younger generation is 41-year-old Perez Roque, just 34 when appointed foreign minister in 1999. Perez Roque previously spent seven years overseeing Castro’s personal schedule, becoming intimately familiar with the leader’s thinking.A short, stocky man with a ready grin, Perez Roque kept a cool head and grabbed the microphone to calm tens of thousands of Cubans in 2001 when Castro fainted briefly during a speech.Soberon, the 62-year-old Central Bank president, evidently was named in Castro’s statement for his role in financing projects.Castro also handed some duties to three old-time Communist leaders relatively unknown outside Cuba: Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer and Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura – representing the revolution’s oldest surviving leaders – and Vice President Esteban Lazo Hernandez, Cuba’s most powerful black leader.Their inclusion shows Castro wants to ensure the leadership does not stray from communist principles in his absence.Like Lage, all three are Politburo members, and two – Machado and Lazo – are also on the party’s newly resurrected secretariat, which aims to revive communist ideology in daily government. Castro charged Balaguer with overseeing Cuba’s health programs and Machado and Lazo with looking after the country’s education programs.Known as “historicos” for their roles in Cuba’s revolution, Balaguer, 74, and Machado, 76, are physicians who fought with rebel forces in the late 1950s.Balaguer, a former ambassador to Moscow, spent a dozen years as the party’s ideology chieftain, fighting to ensure the nation’s adherence to Marxist principles as the island muddled through a crisis sparked by the Soviet Union’s collapse.Machado, a former health minister, oversaw medical services for the rebel army in the 1950s.Lazo, a huge man who projects a powerful presence in his tropical guayabera shirts, is charged with shaping Cuba’s image abroad as head of the party’s International Relations Department.Although not mentioned in Castro’s message, Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, 69, is also expected to have a key role in any future Cuban government.A veteran diplomat and Castro’s point man on Cuba-U.S. relations, Alarcon is an elegant man with wispy white hair who speaks perfect English and smokes Cohiba cigars.Since Castro fell ill, Alarcon has been the only government official to speak publicly about the recovery of the “Maximum Leader.””He’s perfectly conscious and in good spirits, as always,” Alarcon said Wednesday on the independent U.S. radio show Democracy Now! “We have talked for more than a half-hour about many things: about what’s happening in the world … and about the impact his announcement has had.”
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