If Castro exits, who waits in the wings?


A quick memo to those Cuban-Americans who waved flags, honked horns and partied in the streets after learning that ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro had temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul Castro: There's bad news and worse news.

The bad news is that Fidel isn't dead yet. Castro, 79, recently went into the hospital for surgery to repair gastrointestinal bleeding. The latest news reports have El Jefe out of intensive care and still very sick, but recovering.

The worse news: There exists in Cuba a cadre of hardcore, Marxist leaders dedicated to seeing Castro's 47-year-old Revolution continue, even after El Jefe is dead.

Well, that's the impression I got from two visits to Cuba, anyway.

The most recent visit was in late February and early March of this year. As a Cuban driver drove me and four other American journalists down a lengthy street that runs along Cuba's northern coastline, I noticed several billboards with a picture of President Bush.

A plus sign followed Bush's face, which was followed by a picture of Adolf Hitler. After Hitler's face was an equal sign, and after that a picture of another man I didn't recognize.

"Who's the third man?" I asked our interpreter and guide.

"Dracula," she answered.

I saw the "Bush plus Hitler equals Dracula" billboard when we were on our way to interview Josefina Vidal, whom the Cubans call the general director of the North American Area in the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

I'm sure, for the overly verbose Cubans, Vidal's lofty title simply means "deputy foreign minister." Whatever she's called, Vidal specifically addressed the issue of what would happen in Cuba after Castro dies.

"There are people ready to continue running the country," Vidal said. Her concern wasn't so much what leaders of a post-Castro Cuba will or won't do, but what the United States will do. Vidal devoted most of the interview to talking about the "Bush plan": the intentions of the Bush administration for a "transition" government in post-Castro Cuba.

"The word 'transition' has always been a way for the United States to cover its real objective," Vidal said. "Many years ago they [U.S. government officials] didn't talk about 'transition.' Their goal was to overthrow the Cuban government. For us, transition means no Fidel, no Raul and no 'others.'"

Those "others" would be people like Vidal and Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada. Alarcon was mentioned as a possible successor to Castro in this week's edition of The Economist. He is the president of the National Assembly - Cuba's parliament.

Anyone doubting Vidal's interpretation of what "transition" means for Bush administration officials needs to look no further than Bush's own words to the Cuban people, reported in this paper yesterday.

"We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy," Bush said in an Associated Press report, "and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

I'm sure Vidal took particular notice of the word "transitional" in Bush's statement. As probably did Alarcon, who possibly regarded it as a threat. The group of journalists also interviewed Alarcon during our visit. He spoke several times of what he considered American "threats" against Cuba.

"They will continue to threaten Cuba," Alarcon said of Bush administration officials. "The problem is not one of invading Cuba and occupying Cuba. They can't do that. That would be worse than Iraq."

Alarcon may have more faith in the good sense of Bush administration officials than I do. I wouldn't put it past his advisers to advocate an invasion of Cuba, even with America's all-volunteer armed forces already stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq. How thin? Maryland U.S. senatorial candidate Kweisi Mfume hinted at it in a speech Thursday at a fundraiser.

Mfume said he met a serviceman at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport who was returning to Iraq. Not for his second tour of duty. Nor for his third.

It was his fourth.

"We didn't do that in Korea," Mfume told his supporters. "We didn't do it in Vietnam and we didn't do it in World War II. We're diminishing the ability of our troops by fighting this crazy war."

Anyone who doesn't believe we'll eventually be stretching our troops to the breaking point with an invasion of Cuba should ask himself just how this "transitional democratic government" will be installed in Cuba once Castro dies. I didn't get the impression in talking to Vidal and Alarcon that they were simply going to cede power to Cuba's cadre of dissidents on the island or to their sworn enemies in the anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Miami.

That kind of leaves invasion - and more war and death - as the only option. Those Cuban-Americans celebrating earlier this week might want to ponder that.


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