Ricardo Alarcon is a cigar-chomping bon viveur with a taste in fine suits. His name is on every shortlist of Cubans who might take over from Fidel Castro some time today. But, if only to judge by the ease with which it was possible to button-hole him on a street in Old Havana this week, it’s a safe bet that he will not be the next President of Cuba.
Instead, as President of the National Assembly of People's Power, Mr Alarcon has a crucial role in choreographing today's formal transition of power, after 49 years of continuous authoritarian rule by Fidel Castro. "Let's wait to hear what the National Assembly has to say," Mr Alarcon told The Independent on Sunday. "There is a democratic process under way."
There are lots of armchair strategists who think they know how the Cubans should play their cards at this crucial stage in their history. One option would be to pick a candidate with whom the United States would be willing to conduct business. A clever approach, remarks a European diplomat, would be to avoid handing power to Raul Castro, the heir apparent, who has been in charge of the country during the past 18 months of his elder brother's illness.
The US Congress has banned any and all dealings with either Castro brother under the Helms-Burton Act. If another Castro emerges as president, there seems little chance of the US moving to end the economic embargo which has been in place since the 1959 revolution, but that may the very calculation that swings the decision in Raul's favour. The embargo has enabled Fidel Castro to maintain his grip over every aspect of Cuban life.
Along with baseball, the embargo is about all that unites Cubans. Castro loyalists, dissidents, even the political prisoners rotting away in the regime's jails, seem united in their hatred of the blockade. It is also a rallying cry for the 1 million Cuban exiles in Florida, a swing state in an election year with the capacity to make or break a presidential candidate. This explains why the Republican candidate John McCain was quick to condemn Barack Obama's offer to sit down and talk with the next Cuban leader in the event that he wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to become president of the US.
But change may finally be in the air in the US as well. A younger generation of Cuban-Americans may be prepared to negotiate where their parents only wanted to fight. Hillary Clinton said she would only talk to a Cuban leader if certain benchmarks were achieved, an approach Mr Obama dismisses as the old discredited concept that meetings with a US president "are a privilege which has to be earned".
Fidel Castro has used guile, repression and America's failed attempts to topple him to outfox and outlast every US president for close on half a century. Now bedridden, and in what may be the last remaining weeks of his life, his objective must be to keep in place the system which has kept himself and his Communist party cronies in power for so long.
And despite Mr Alarcon's protestations to the contrary, today's vote will be anything but democratic, in the commonly accepted sense of the word. Members of the National Assembly are elected to their positions, but those who run for office are hand picked toadies of the neighbourhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, as well as carefully screened representatives of workers, youth, women, students and farmers.
Nelson Aguiar Ramirez, President of Cuba's Liberal Party will not be eligible to take part in the selection process. He is currently five years into a 13-year jail sentence, many miles from Havana. Nor will the head of Cuba's independent trade union movement be up for election, as he is serving 20 years in jail, a sentence imposed only in 2003 after a brief Cuban spring was cruelly repressed on Castro's orders.
If, as expected, power is handed to Raul Castro today, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, the prominent dissident, believes there will be an opportunity for real change in the country. Out on medical parole from a 20-year jail sentence, thanks in part to pressure from the Foreign Office, he told the IoS: "We are entering new time in Cuba, probably with Raul Castro at the head. He is a completely different person to his brother, far more willing to listen, but the pressures he faces are very great, because now all the people are talking about are the changes they are expecting.
"But if he does not make these changes there will be huge frustration, there will be instability and a big explosion."
Raul Castro admires the way China's Communist Party engineered huge economic growth without losing its grip on power. This is the model Mr Espinosa Chepe expects the younger Castro to follow. "There is still repression in Cuba," he said. "The jails are full of dissidents, and life for those seeking change is as bad as it was in East Germany under the Stasi. The movie, "The Lives of Others", captured perfectly how we live here in Cuba. It is just like that."
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