When Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced very early Tuesday morning that he would not seek re-election in next Sunday's contest, he ignited a flurry of discussion about how much the island nation and its global relations will change.
The general consensus: not much if his brother wins the election. Raul Castro has been acting as a figurehead since Fidel Castro became ill in July 2006 and is almost unequivocally expected to win.
"If his brother Raul is elected, there will be more immediate continuity than immediate change," said Louis Pérez, director of UNC's Institute for the Study of the Americas and a leading expert on Cuba who regularly travels to Havana.
But that could change as Raul Castro develops as a leader and Cubans begin looking to him to direct the government, Pérez said.
"I think there comes a point where he's going to be his own person. . Nobody talks about Fidel Castro anymore. They recognize it's time to move on."
Some say Fidel Castro's decision doesn't change the fact that he has a strong influence over his brother's decisions.
"He's still there, and he's still the revolutionary hero and is exercising some constraints," said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Studies at the University of Miami.
Once Raul Castro is able to exert control over daily activity in Cuba, he'll be able to command the same degree of respect as his brother, Pérez said.
That is crucial for the new leadership because many Cubans have more loyalty to Fidel Castro than to the government he has represented for more than 50 years.
"Because the government and Fidel Castro have been so closely tied for the past 50-odd years, I don't know how much people differentiate between the two," said Angelo Coclanis, a UNC junior who studied in Havana in 2007.
UNC began sending students to study abroad at the University of Havana in 2003 and is one of only a handful of universities to do so.
Coclanis said Cubans accepted Raul Castro as his brother's proxy and likely will continue to do so because Raul Castro is expected to maintain his brother's policies.
"The real change will come after Raul," he said.
Raul Castro, 76, is not young, and Fidel Castro has expressed a desire to pass on leadership to a younger generation.
However, that's unlikely to happen until after Raul Castro's rule because Cuba's government is not conducive to drastic change, Pérez said.
"Somebody's going to have to step up soon, but I don't think it's going to be in this election," said UNC senior Jonathan Tyus, who also studied abroad in Havana in 2007. "That's too much change all at once."
Despite Fidel Castro's departure, few believe relations with the United States will change until the administration changes.
"I think, until we have a change in leadership in south Florida and in the White House, you're going to see status quo politics," said Joe García, former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
The Cuban exile community has great influence on south Florida's leadership. That constituency has played a pivotal role in securing Republican victories in the region.
Despite a flurry of excitement beyond the island's borders, Cubans accepted the announcement with little fanfare besides snapping up copies of the Communist Party newspaper, Granma.
The paper, Fidel Castro's mode of communication with Cubans since last spring, broke the news on its Web site.
"There has been no discernible reaction. Today was a normal day," UNC sophomore Alex Merritt stated in an e-mail from Havana, where he is studying this semester.
"People went to work, went to school and went to Coppelia, the famous ice cream stand, as usual."
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