Who will lead Cuba now?

For the first time in a half century, it is not clear who Cuba's next president — due to be named this week — would be, but the new leader will face intense pressure for change, analysts say.

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In the Americas' only communist-ruled, one-party state, where political uncertainty has been an oxymoron since 1959, ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro hinted in his farewell-to-the-presidency message at passing the torch to a capable “middle(-aged) generation.”

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The Cuban Revolution “also has the middle generation that learned together with us the elements of the complex, almost unknowable art of organising and directing a revolution,” Castro wrote, seeming to spotlight leaders to come.

Raul Castro?

Perhaps significantly, Fidel Castro, did not qualify his brother's performance in office as interim leader. But he did say of the old guard: “They have the authority and experience to guarantee the passing of the baton.”

Still, analysts said the top post most likely would pass to 76-year-old interim president Raul Castro when the National Assembly meets Sunday to make its choice.

“It's likely that Raul Castro will be selected president of the Council of State. There is a possibility (Vice President Carlos) Lage also could be named; it's possible, but not likely,” said Frank Mora, professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College outside Washington.

Fidel Castro, 81 and ailing after major intestinal surgery, did not say explicitly who he thought should be his successor as president. Most analysts believe his brother Raul Castro, the defence chief, is the obvious choice.

“By standing down (Castro) has paved the way for his brother Raul to officially succeed him through the Cuban electoral process,” said Stephen Wilkinson, assistant director of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba in London.

Raul Castro, if he stays at Cuba's helm, “needs to meet the rising expectations for quality of life,” Mr Mora said.

“If Fidel can get away with charisma during economic crisis, Raul cannot,” said Mr Mora, predicting that Raul Castro soon would move not toward democracy or market economics, but to “targeted, albeit gradual, economic reforms.”

The United States, which always said Fidel Castro's regime would not outlive him, now has seen it survive under Raul Castro for more than a year. Now, Washington could see it pass to him for good, or even to another communist leader aiming to perpetuate the regime for decades.

'Democratic transition'?

US President George W. Bush, travelling in Rwanda, said Fidel Castro's decision to step down should begin a “democratic transition” in Cuba, eventually culminating with free and fair elections.

“I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of democratic transition,” Mr Bush said. “Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And I mean free, and I mean fair — not these kinds of staged elections that the Castro brothers tried to foist off as being true democracy.”

Pierre Rigolout, director of the Social History Institute in Paris and a Cuba scholar, said “people are moving a bit quickly. What Fidel Castro is leaving is the presidency of the Council of State. The head of state in a communist country is not tremendously important. It is still Fidel Castro who is Secretary General of the (Cuban Communist) Party,” he said.

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said it was impossible to predict who would soon be leading Cuba. But “Do I expect any major changes in the short run? Probably not.

“This is a slow-motion transition,” Mr Hakim added, noting that with Fidel Castro still a lawmaker and political presence “that puts some constraints on change.”