Cuba’s Fidel Castro is looking beyond his brother Raul to a younger generation of leadership for the Marxist state, after signalling for the first time his readiness to relinquish power.
The Cuban leader, in a letter read on state television, strongly suggested that he may never come back to public life, confirming what many have suspected for months.
Experts say the bombshell statement is notable for Mr Castro’s conspicuous failure to signal that his younger brother Raul, 76, would succeed him.
His statement instead threw a spotlight on a rising generation of communist leaders, one, or perhaps several, of whom appear destined to succeed him.
“This particular statement on his part confirms what everyone has known, which is, the era of Castro is rapidly coming to a close,” US Council on Hemispheric Affairs spokesman Larry Birns said.
Raul Castro, the current acting president, may have been named the provisional leader on the communist island, but “will not hold office for very long,” Mr Birns said.
The letter is remarkable because of the fact that Fidel emphasises a new generation of leaders, Mr Birns added.
Nevertheless Raul, for decades Cuba’s defence minister, stands to play a critical role in the passing of the torch.
“He is the truly transitional figure,” Mr Birns said.
“He will be preparing the way for this new generation of Cuban men.”
Not that the next generation of Cuban leadership are political newcomers.
They include men like long-time player Ricardo Alarcon, the third-most powerful man in the country, president of the National Assembly. Another possible contender is Vice President Carlos Lage.
Passing the leadership baton
In his letter, Mr Castro said he would not cling to office. He saw it as his duty not “to block the rise of younger people,” and said his future role in Cuba would be “to pass on experiences and ideas whose modest value arises from the exceptional era in which I lived”.
Cuba watchers, like Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami, believe the latest comments pave the way for his resignation.
“It indicates that his health is deteriorating, that he’s now abdicating total power and he’s passing it to his brother and the leadership of Cuba to name the next president of Cuba,” he said.
Hudson Institute spokesman Jaime Daremblum said that in his view, the process of succession is already well under way.
The letter brings Cuba “one step closer to Castro’s future retirement that already began when Raul assumed the presidency”, he said.
Mr Castro’s letter is also raising the hopes of Cuban exiles in Miami.
“Right now there’s probably a power struggle within the Cuban Government. Right now, probably the younger people are tired of the older people ruling and taking everything,” it said.
But US State Department spokesman Tom Casey says it is hard to work out just what Mr Castro means.
“What we unfortunately haven’t seen is an agreement by the Castro regime to allow the Cuban people to choose their leaders in free and fair elections,” he said.
“So certainly, I don’t think, unfortunately, these remarks represent any kind of fundamental change in the views of the Cuban regime.”
US presidents – 10 of them in fact – have learnt not to second-guess Mr Castro.
He has made similar comments about his future in the past, even before he became ill. And in his latest letter, he pointedly pays tribute to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Mr Castro has not been in the public eye since July 2006, when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and handed provisional power to Raul. The state of his health remains unclear.
Decades of power
Whoever succeeds Fidel has big shoes to fill.
Mr Castro has dominated the island’s politics since he came to power in 1959, surviving numerous assassination attempts and efforts – especially by the United States – to push him out.
He has spent much of his more than four decades in power railing against global capitalism and staring down numerous challenges from the US.
Inter-American Dialogue Cuba expert Dan Erikson said the larger-than-life leader was likely to be followed not just by one successor, but a leadership group.
“The leadership will be more collective in nature, more collective decision-making,” he predicted.
During his convalescence, Mr Castro has kept busy by writing regular commentaries in government newspapers and making a few appearances on state-run television, but has never yet appeared in public.
As yet, unanswered is the question of what role he will play if and when he officially relinquishes power.
Mr Birns said it was likely that Mr Castro would play the role “of an elder sage” while the communist revolution he spawned is unlikely to remain in its current form – although unfettered democracy and capitalism were unlikely to take root.
“The revolution is going to continue, but is going to be ameliorated,” Mr Birn said.
“It is going to take on more and more the complexion… of a social democracy.”
The life-long Communist turned 100 on Saturday.