Raúl Castro's grip is firm, Senate panel is told

January 12, 2007

Miami Herald- Pablo Bachelet

WASHINGTON - Raúl Castro is firmly in control of Cuba and in a position to keep the island stable at least for the short term after his brother Fidel dies, a top U.S. military intelligence official told a Senate panel Thursday.

Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the U.S. Army director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also said that Raúl, who has served as minister of defense since the early 1960s, enjoyed ``widespread respect and support among Cuban military leaders who will be crucial in a permanent government succession.'

The brief remarks, in a written statement presented before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, provide the first glimpse into what U.S. officials believe might occur in the months that will follow Fidel's demise. Raúl Castro took the reins of power after Fidel fell sick nearly six months ago.

Until now, U.S. officials have said a transition was underway but provided few clues on whether they believed it would go smoothly or turn volatile.

'In Cuba, Raúl Castro is firmly in control as Cuba's acting president,' Maples said, ``and will likely maintain power and stability after Fidel Castro dies, at least for the short term.'

He was joined by the U.S. intelligence community's top chiefs in the Senate hearing on threats to U.S. Security. Though the hearing focused almost entirely on Iraq and terrorism, the testimonies shed some new light on the intelligence community's latest thinking on Latin America.

Latin American democracies, the officials said, fared well after the wave of presidential elections last year but were under greatest threat in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, whose agency coordinates the work of 16 U.S. spying organizations, said 'key drivers' influencing events in a post-Fidel Cuba were ``how cohesive the governing elite will remain in the absence of Cuba's iconic leader, how astute Raúl Castro proves to be as his brother's successor, and how much pressure the population will exert on the government in seeking economic and political reforms.'

Negroponte, who in the past has said that Fidel Castro had just months to live, shed little new light on the 80-year-old Cuban leader's health. His prepared remarks referred to 'Castro's apparent impending demise' which will deprive Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of a 'valued mentor and strategic advisor.' The Cuban government has refused to reveal the nature of Castro's illness.

Negroponte's comments also suggested that the U.S. government believes Chávez is moving to seize Fidel's mantle as Latin America's leading revolutionary.

Citing recent announcements of plans to revoke the license of an opposition TV station and nationalize telecommunications and power companies, Negroponte noted that after his landslide Dec. 3 reelection victory, Chávez has promised to deepen his ``revolution.'

'Chávez is among the most stridently anti-American leaders anywhere in the world, and will continue to try to undercut U.S. influence in Venezuela, in the rest of Latin America, and elsewhere internationally,' he said.

Negroponte also bundled Bolivia with Venezuela as countries where elected presidents ``are taking advantage of their popularity to undercut the opposition and eliminate checks on their authority.'

In Bolivia, leftist President Evo Morales wants to rewrite the country's constitution and is widely seen as being on a collision course with regional governments that oppose him.

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