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Raúl Castro has taken to his big brother’s job with such gusto that speculation is growing about the future leadership of the Communist island nation.
While officials insist Fidel Castro is on the mend after undergoing abdominal surgery and will be back in office soon, Raúl has taken an increasingly public approach to the role of acting president.
“They say Fidel will be back soon and is even giving orders and then Raúl acts like just the opposite is the case. No one really knows what’s going on,” a European ambassador said.
The Bush administration has declared that Fidel’s days are over - it has set up five interagency working groups on the assumption that a transition has begun - though even it now appears confused. Thomas Shannon, US assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, said last month that Castro ‘’does not appear’’ to be in a position to return to day-to-day management.
Power is exercised in Cuba behind the scenes and leadership projected through the state’s media monopoly, the latter’s focus reserved almost exclusively for Fidel Castro until just a few weeks ago.
Raúl’s public profile contrasts sharply with his first six weeks in Fidel’s shoes, when he remained almost invisible, giving just one interview to the local press.
He broke into permanent public view on September 15 and 16 as host of the non-aligned summit, at which both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, were careful not to upstage him. He then went on to chair a meeting of the country’s municipal, provincial and national leadership where he called for more discipline “at this historic moment in our country’s history”.
Last week, the younger Castro - Raúl is 75 - delivered his first domestic speech broadcast live to the nation at the close of a trade union federation congress, which was then repeated on radio and printed in the newspapers.
He then welcomed Mijail Fradkov, the Russian prime minister, to the revolution palace for talks and to preside over the signing of economic agreements - firsts for the man referred to here as second secretary of the Communist Party, first vice president, defense minister ... anything but acting president.
“Raúl has been substituting forcefully and in the limelight recently, in ways that I doubt he would undertake if Fidel were about to return,” says Brian Latell, author of After Fidel, a book on the brothers he watched for decades as a CIA analyst.
Almost the entire national leadership was present for Raúl’s halting 45-minute discourse to the union federation, in which he called on workers to close ranks against the twin dangers he said threatened the nation and revolution - the US from without and corruption and other “deficiencies” from within.
“Many people support Raúl. He is a good leader, but he sure can’t talk,” a neighbour quipped with a disappointed frown.
Nevertheless, a confident and relaxed younger Castro seems to be enjoying his new role, often cracking jokes as he goes.
As union leaders energetically chanted, “We hear you, we feel you, Fidel you are present,” Raúl grabbed the mike and asked what they had been drinking during a break in the proceedings, since many appeared only half awake in the day.
Barring a major medical set-back, government sources insist that Fidel will once again occupy his office before the end of the year. But it will be difficult to ignore Raúl’s emergence as a less verbal substitute, leading many observers to predict dual leadership with an enhanced role for Raúl as the most likely scenario in coming months.
There is much speculation as to what ails Fidel Castro, from terminal cancer to the deterioration of his large intestine, but his health and even location remain carefully guarded secrets. The best evidence yet that he is recovering and that his mental faculties are intact is his move to receive visitors outside of a close circle of friends, including Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general.