By Frances Robles | McClatchy Newspapers
The latest leader to emerge in Cuba is a pediatrician and economic reformer who’s known for biking to work.
Vice President Carlos Lage, a 55-year-old who once served on a medical mission to Ethiopia, became the nation’s economic czar in the early 1990s. And now Lage has become one of the few Cuban politicians to stand out as a rising confidant of interim leader Raul Castro.
Lage’s rise - and the perceived slide of hard-liners close to Fidel Castro, such as Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque - has marked the six months since Castro ceded power to his brother following surgery for a still undisclosed ailment.
As old-time communist stalwarts and young up-and-comers close ranks in Havana to consolidate power in a not quite post-Fidel Cuba, experts agree that Lage’s heightened profile is a sign of a Cuba to come: one under Raul, where an economic overhaul could be welcomed.
Once on the edges of the Cuban limelight, Lage has represented Cuba at most international gatherings, from presidential summits to inaugurations, and recently headed a top-level delegation to Caracas to sign a string of agreements with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s top ally and financial backer.
“Lage is key in all this,” said Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana and critic of U.S. Cuba policy. “Lage had been sort of put in the back seat, because he wanted to move ahead with economic reforms and Fidel didn’t. Raul comes in and makes Lage his right-hand man. He’s been brought out of the closet, so to speak.”
Lage was credited with pushing state enterprise administrators to increase productivity and keep the economy from collapsing without surrendering socialism after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, he oversaw a series of economic changes that permitted limited and indirect land holdings and small businesses.
They were moves Raul is believed to have supported, but Fidel curtailed them.
When Fidel announced July 31 that an intestinal ailment had sidelined him and he needed to relinquish power for the first time in 47 years, he assigned his pet projects to six senior officials.
He put energy and finance in the hands of Lage, a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo since 1991 and one of the younger members of Castro’s inner circle. His son, also named Carlos, is now head of the influential Federation of University Students.
And while he has touted the need for economic changes, Lage by no means wavers in his commitment to socialism.
“Socialism in Cuba is irreversible ... because with our efforts yesterday and today, we make it irreversible,” he said in a speech last month. “In Cuba, there will be no succession; there will be continuity.”
Experts point to Ramiro Valdes as another person who has taken a more important role under Raul Castro. Although long believed to be Raul’s nemesis, Valdes was named minister of communications, in charge of key sectors such as the Internet.
Although experts wonder whether Raul Castro named Valdes so he could keep his enemies close, they note that it nevertheless is a sign of closing ranks. As long as Fidel Castro remains alive, analysts doubt drastic changes will take place.
“Differences will not emerge until people start competing for political power. And, at the moment, there is no such thing,” said Frank Mora, a professor at the National War College in Washington. “The fact that ... these two hated guys could come together and hold hands tells you something: in a moment of uncertainty, they will come together.”
Despite the semblance of unity, some Cuban officials do appear to have lost some ground under Raul Castro.
Experts agree that Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque appears to have taken a lesser role in the past few months. Although he gave a key speech during an international summit in Havana in September, he has not been part of many of the foreign delegations headed by Lage.
The lower profile is important, because Perez Roque is a key member of Fidel’s inner circle. He’s among the hard-liners dubbed Talibans for their strict allegiance to communism.
“He was like a son to Fidel,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. “He has apparently been pushed aside. Raul doesn’t want totally devoted proteges of Fidel.”
Also playing lesser roles in the past few months have been Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, and Young Communists leaders Hassan Perez and Otto Rivero, Cuba watchers said.
Old-time officials such as Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer and Esteban Lazo and Jose Ramon Machado Ventura - to whom Fidel assigned oversight of education - are expected to keep their assignments but diminish in importance over time.
For now, no one is expecting anything dramatic.
“There’s too much uncertainty,” Kaufman Purcell said. “Raul can’t really become Raul until Fidel is gone.”