Fidel Castro stepping down and turning over the reins of power to younger brother Raul, while grounds for cautious optimism, is not necessarily a sign that a Cuban-style version of perestroika is imminent, according to one former Cuban freedom fighter.

Cuban-American Diego Gimenez, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System animal scientist and Auburn University associate professor of animal science, has been monitoring the subtle nuances of his native country’s politics for years, searching for signs that political reform and removal of the embargo would soon follow.

Gimenez, a veteran of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April, 1961, became especially interested in following Cuban politics when the Castro government appeared to be inching toward market liberalization following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

He has always thought the potential for trade between Alabama and Cuba would be especially beneficial for both sides, given their close proximity to each other.

For now, Gimenez says, it’s too early to tell just how Castro’s retirement will play out within Cuba’s communist political structure.

While the Council of State governs the island on a day-to-day basis, the National Assembly actually wields some influence in this communist country, despite the presence of hardliners within its ranks, he says.

“Even despite the presence of these hardliners, there are moderates within the Assembly who favor change,” he says, adding that its president, Ricardo Alarcon, may be a person to watch over the next few weeks, Gimenez says.

“Alarcon is someone the government has called on time and again to address international issues, whether it’s the United States or the world,” Gimenez says. “He’s the public face who deals with the American media when the need arises.

“He speaks English well but he’s also a very powerful person.”

And as Raul Castro moves up to permanent president, another important variable will be who is appointed in his former position as first vice-president. Other positions within the council also must be filled. Gimenez believes these choices could prove significant in revealing the course Cuba ultimately will follow over the next few years.

“It will be very interesting to see which names surface over the next few days and weeks as deliberations unfold,” he says.

Another important issue to bear in mind is Raul Castro’s repeated calls for opening up Cuba’s economy to the United States, particularly expanding the island’s potentially lucrative tourist industry.

“Raul has always been more open than his brother on this issue,” Gimenez says, adding that these moves nevertheless have been stymied by Fidel time and again.

One added challenge to more openness as well as expanded trade and dialogue with the United States has been the Bush administration’s determination to maintain sanctions that have been in place since the 1960s.

Also, even though Raul Castro is more open on economic issues, he remains a steadfast hardliner on human rights issues, even a stronger hardliner than Fidel.

So even though trade may open up, democratic elections and release of political prisoners still could proceed at a snails’ pace for the foreseeable future, Gimenez says.

Gimenez also believes the U.S. presidential election will have a major impact on trade expansion and also on an expanded Cuban/American dialogue.

Based on past history, Democratic presidential victories typically have led to more trade liberalization with Cuba, and Gimenez believes a similar outcome in November would be no different.

In the meantime, Gimenez says he applauds efforts under way in the United States to expand trade with Cuba, reserving special praise for Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who remains a strong advocate of trade liberalization with the island.

He’s also especially interested in the prospects of Auburn University forging ties with its counterparts in Cuba.

“We’ve come close to achieving that in the past, and despite occasional setbacks, we need to continue with our efforts,” he says.