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After Castro, three likely successors possible Cuba presidents
Will parliament again name Fidel Castro president of the nation's highest governing body and chief of state later this month, despite his long public absence, or will he assume more of an advisory role? Will brother Raúl be named Cuba's new president? Or will a younger generation take over?

The answers lie in a process that rivals a papal selection, rife with speculation and cloaked in secrecy. When the 614-member assembly meets on Feb. 24, its main order of business will be to select members and officers of the Council of State, the island's highest governing body.

Raúl Castro, 76, who temporarily assumed power after his brother underwent emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006, could permanently take over the presidency.

But Raúl, too, may be happier in an advisory role, even though he garnered 99.4 percent of the vote in the Castro family stronghold of Santiago in eastern Cuba " a percentage point more than the immensely popular Fidel.

Still, Cuba watchers have identified three likely post-Castro successors: Carlos Lage, Cuba's 56-year-old vice president and a former physician; Felipe Perez Roque, the 42-year-old foreign minister; and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, 70.

Perez Roque, the youngest of the three, spent eight years as Fidel Castro's chief of staff before becoming foreign minister in 1999. He famously stepped to the microphone to calm the crowd when Fidel Castro fainted during a speech in 2001, shouting "Viva Raúl! Viva Fidel!"

Perez Roque's Fidelista past, however, could work against him, according to Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington, and other analysts. The former electrical engineer has earned a reputation as a hard-liner bent on maintaining his mentor's socialist model.

Affable and fluent in English, Alarcón is considered one of Cuba's most powerful officials. His ties to the Castro brothers date to the revolution. Alarcón also is Cuba's most experienced diplomat and has long managed relations with the United States. But his age is a concern, analysts said.

"Alarcón is the most experienced and I think he will certainly have a very senior role but he's up there also," said Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, a Washington research organization. "By the time Raúl moves aside, Alarcón may be too old."

"He's the person to watch," said Mora. "Lage seems to be someone who at least is acceptable to multiple circles within the leadership - in the military, in the party, with the Raúlistas."

Lage is credited with engineering and implementing the limited reforms that restarted Cuba's economy after the Soviet collapse. The programs included legalizing the dollar, creating small private enterprises and agricultural cooperatives, and increasing foreign investment and tourism. Although Fidel Castro reversed many of the reforms in 2003, Lage is viewed favorably among foreign businessmen in Cuba as a pragmatist open to economic change.

"Lage would make a very good president," said Smith, who served as America's top diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982.

"He's very pragmatic and solid and he has a good economic head on his shoulders."

Lage and Perez Roque are more than two decades younger than the Castros who are among the "historicos," Cuba's revolutionary leaders. Gradually the political leaders who fought in the Revolution are being replaced with Cubans who grew up with the revolution, according to analysts. More than 60 percent of the parliamentarians were born after 1959.

"There may come a time when this generational change could affect Cuban policy in some dramatic way," Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a research group outside of Washington, wrote in his blog late last month. "For now ... the importance of this electoral process is that it forces a decision on the political future of Fidel Castro."

In a letter released in the state media in December, Fidel Castro said he did not intend to "obstruct the path of younger people" aspiring to lead Cuba. But he didn't withdraw his name from the list of Communist Party candidates for the National Assembly, either. Which puts him in line for the presidency. Again.


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