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Why women now lead the dissident fight in Cuba

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"It speaks volumes that Raúl's second-in-command is older than he is," says Mr. Freyre. "They're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

"Cuba doesn't have any short- or long-term plan for democracy," says Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, pointing out that suppression of civil liberties is still written into Cuban law.

But, despite the historic apathy fueled by the fear of imprisonment or worse, the passing of the mantle from Fidel to Raúl has stirred people's expectations – and created anxiety within the highest ranks.

"The government is worried about a Tiananmen Square situation," says Brian Latell, former CIA analyst assigned to profiling Fidel and Raúl, and author of the book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader."

Although few expect a popular uprising akin to that of the Chinese demonstrators who were famously gunned down for protesting political repression in Beijing in 1989, the Cuban government is cautious. "Raúl recognizes he's in uncharted waters," says Mr. Erikson. "He's moving with extraordinary care and keeping close tabs on dissidents."

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