Wed Jan 17, 3:05 PM
By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA (Reuters) - Whether or not Cuban leader Fidel Castro is terminally ill, the provisional government he designated under his brother Raul has kept Cuba on a stable track in his absence, Cuba watchers said on Wednesday.
Even U.S. officials who suspect the 80-year-old revolutionary has only months to live admit the hemisphere's only Communist-run nation is not about to implode without its supreme "comandante."
There has been no rioting nor a repeat of the 1994 exodus when thousands of Cubans took to the sea in precarious craft to seek a better life in the United States as the Cuban economy slumped following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
Castro stepped down temporarily on July 31 after emergency intestinal surgery forced him to hand over the reins to low-profile Defense Minister Raul Castro and a team of five other Communist Party leaders.
Cuban economists say they are encouraged by the change of style under Raul Castro, who is focusing on fixing Cuba's most pressing problems rather than blaming scape-goats.
"Raul seems to be faring pretty well without Fidel," said Julia Sweig, an expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington.
"There are no signs of instability," said Sweig, who believes a post-Fidel transition -- staged by Castro himself -- is already underway in Cuba.
Sweig sees slow-motion change toward greater economic opportunity for Cubans, not the wholesale shift to free-market democracy Washington has sought for decades.
Castro's condition is a tightly guarded state secret in Cuba.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais, quoting medical sources at the same Madrid hospital where a surgeon who examined Castro in late December works, reported on Tuesday that the Cuban leader faced a "very serious" prognosis after three failed operations to remove infected bulges in the large intestine.
Castro personally made the decision to avoid a routine colostomy, an opening in the abdomen to release stool into an external bag, opting for a riskier short-cut operation that went wrong, El Pais said in a new report on Wednesday.
Officials in Havana have not commented on the report.
"Whether it's diverticulitis complicated by botched operations or incomplete operations is in some ways minor," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The key issue is how Cuba's one-party system is coping without Castro at the helm, he said. He added no "fissures" had appeared so far, while Castro is still formally president.
"I've not seen any signs to suggest that they've gone further down the track in terms of removing Castro as a governing figure, or that they have fallen off the rails in terms of their ability to keep things together," he said.
Cuba's institutions are sturdier than those of most Third World nations and its population is healthier and more educated due to its welfare state, an Asian diplomat in Havana said.
But he said Raul Castro will have to move quickly to reduce the economic hardships and shortages most Cubans face, before they turn into political demands.
"For Raul, 2 and 2 is 4. He is more pragmatic and less ideological than his brother," the diplomat said.
Raul Castro, who runs Cuba's armed forces and is now acting head of state and the party, was once the Kremlin's man in Havana. But today he is seen to favor more room for private initiative to kick-start a battered economy.
At a meeting with university students in December, the 75-year-old general invited more debate on public policy and said the time was coming for a new generation to lead Cuba.
Two days later he said the country was tired of excuses at a National Assembly session that focused on chronic housing, public transport and food supply deficiencies.
Where Fidel Castro would surely have laid into private farmers for enriching themselves at the state's expense, Raul angrily demanded to know why farmers had not been paid on time when they account for 65 percent of Cuba's produce.
Without his brother's towering personality and charisma, Raul Castro will have to deliver on bread-and-butter issues and open political space for debate on how to do that, Sweig said.
"They are going to have to get the state out of smaller enterprises that Cubans can clearly run themselves," she said.
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