Friday, December 30, 2005

Backers of Cuban Reforms Play a Waiting Game,0,463732,full.story?coll=la-home-world
From the Los Angeles Times
Backers of Cuban Reforms Play a Waiting Game
From Washington to Havana, there is a prevailing sense of resignation that only Castro's death will clear the way for democracy.
By Carol J. Williams
Times Staff Writer

December 30, 2005

ALONG THE STRAITS OF FLORIDA — On both sides of this 90-mile-wide waterway separating the United States and Cuba, the aging adversaries of the Cold War's most enduring confrontation are exercising, eating right and trying to outlast one another.

Septuagenarian Cuban exiles such as Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran and Miami lawyer, proclaim themselves fit for the day that mortality will vanquish archenemy Fidel Castro and they can return triumphant to their homeland.

But the 79-year-old Communist leader, who has withstood assassination attempts, a U.S. embargo and economic stagnation and who will mark his 47th year in power on New Year's Day, takes care of himself as well.

He eschews the cigars and rum for which his country is famous and adheres to a natural food diet. Although the CIA recently claimed that he suffers from Parkinson's disease, Castro has appeared hale and strapping lately, well enough to stand for hours ranting against imperialism and opponents of his revolution.

From the streets of Havana to the halls of power in Washington, there is a sense that, inevitably, Cuba will embrace the reforms and democracy that have swept other communist countries over the last two decades. But there is also a prevailing sense of resignation that nothing can be done to hasten the process and that only Castro's death will clear the way.

"People are just waiting," said Damian Fernandez, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "They want a biological solution."

Cuba's succession process calls for Castro's lifelong understudy, his 74-year-old brother Raul, to take power when he dies. Exactly how he would lead the nation remains unknown. But U.S. lawmakers, trade group officials and others who have had contact with Cuba's leadership say some officials desire reform but will not speak openly about it, in deference to Castro.

Cuban government and Communist Party officials declined numerous requests for interviews. But analysts note that even Raul Castro, as head of the Defense Ministry, has had a guiding hand in drawing foreign investment into the booming tourism sector and that others in the Communist Party wings have spoken in favor of market-oriented liberalization.

Cuba's state-run media trumpet the gains in education and healthcare under communism and blame economic failures on U.S. sanctions imposed since 1960. Although most Cubans are proud of the early social accomplishments of Fidel Castro's tenure, many are disenchanted with the lack of entrepreneurial opportunities of the type that have lifted living standards in Eastern Europe, Vietnam and China.

In conversations with dozens of ordinary Cubans in Havana, not one spoke in support of the current crackdown on private enterprise. Most cited Castro as the main obstacle to a freer and more prosperous Cuba, and said they had little hope of relief as long as he remained leader.

"Only one man holds us back. He doesn't want us to earn money," says Javier, a 27-year-old bicycle taxi driver, taking his right hand from the handlebars to stroke an imaginary beard, signifying Castro.

"Havana is destroyed," he said, pedaling past crumbling apartment blocks with flaked paint, broken stairs, uncollected trash and windows that have been without glass for decades. "Young people aren't waiting for change anymore, they're waiting to leave."

But even those openly disparaging of Castro, like an unemployed carpenter named Ivan, say Cubans are too cowed by fear and immobilized by resignation to challenge Castro.

"Esperamos," he said of Cubans' strategy, using the Spanish word that means both "we wait" and "we hope."

While Cubans bide their time, academics are studying the transition experiences of Eastern Europe, South Africa and China, in efforts to forecast what might be ahead for Cuba. Some fear mounting internal pressure if too many years remain in the mortality contest, leading to a possible eruption and violent crackdown, as happened in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

"Cuban society has always accommodated the state, but there is a tradition of both overt and informal opposition," Fernandez said, describing the population as passive but potentially volatile. "People talk among themselves…. You have growing poverty and inequality. Put that together, and you have a very charged situation."

U.S. policy toward Cuba has long sought to ignite discontent with Castro's regime by imposing ever-harsher sanctions, including measures last year that prevent Cuban Americans from visiting relatives more than once every three years.

Caleb McCarry, the State Department's newly appointed Cuba transition coordinator, contends that opposition to Castro in Cuba is broader and stronger than most analysts calculate and that U.S. support to dissident groups will help to eventually bring democracy.

But even he discusses the change in the context of Castro's passing. Pointing to a U.S.-funded report chronicling 1,805 acts of peaceful civil resistance in 2004 as evidence that Cubans are increasingly disgruntled, McCarry predicted they will use Castro's death as their opening to demand change.

"The United States will not support a succession of the dictatorship. We are standing with Cubans who want genuine change in Cuba," he said.

U.S. proponents of greater engagement with Havana say Washington is missing a chance to lay the groundwork now for real change in post-Castro Cuba. They say that the U.S. focus on funding Castro opponents exposes such activists to accusations that they are traitors in the pay of a hostile foreign power.

"It's absurd," said Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration. "We would all like to see Cuba move toward civil society and free markets and greater respect for human rights. But the U.S. policy is exactly the wrong way to go about it."

He alluded to the March 2003 arrests of 75 opposition leaders, who were jailed for terms averaging nearly 20 years on charges of treason.

"As long as the United States is taking a threatening position, the Cuban government will act defensively. They'll call for internal discipline, rally around to defend against the threats — exactly the opposite climate for change," said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Lifting a U.S. travel ban, engaging with Cubans at all professional levels and ending the embargo all would be better strategies for building bridges with the next leadership, Smith argued.

Some analysts see one remote possible catalyst for breaking the U.S.-Cuba standoff before Castro dies: oil.

If reported oil discoveries in Cuban territorial waters prove significant, U.S. energy giants might begin pressuring the administration to ease sanctions to allow them to get into the development market, said Glenn Baker, Cuba Project coordinator for the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

"There's some sense that this time it's for real," Baker said of the energy market buzz over the Cuban offshore reserves.

As for the U.S. embargo against trade or collaboration with Cuba that has been upheld by all 10 administrations since its 1960 imposition, he said: "This is the one thing that could change it."

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), an advocate of broader agricultural trade with Cuba, has been floating a measure that would exempt energy companies from the embargo on grounds that exploiting the Cuban oil would decrease American reliance on the Middle East for energy and boost U.S. national security.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska who studies Cuban energy issues, says market-savvy Cuban officials are eagerly waiting for the chance to work with U.S. oil majors.

"They understand that all the cutting-edge technology comes out of Houston," he said. "They know they won't make significant progress until the United States is there."

Still, he predicted, serious collaboration won't be possible "until such time as Castro is removed from the equation."

For Duran, the Bay of Pigs veteran who spent more than a year in Cuban prisons after the failed 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion, the exile community's strategy of waiting for Castro to die is tantamount to allowing its communist adversaries to declare victory. He despairs of both Castro's repression and the official U.S. strategy of isolating and impoverishing Cubans in the hope of driving them into rebellion.

But the 70-year-old's views have become more moderate in the years since the invasion. He now heads the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which advocates a peaceful transition and reconciliation between those who left and those who stayed.

As time ticks by, the former warrior observes from his opulent office overlooking the straits, the once-monolithic corps of Castro opponents in Florida has become divided, disillusioned and diminished.

"We don't have much of a younger generation in the exile community," he said, noting that more recent waves of refugees show little interest in returning to Cuba even after Castro. "Why should they? They're living the American dream here."

The historicos, as the old Castro adversaries call themselves, are dying out, Duran said.

"But they haven't won until we have surrendered, and that's not going to happen," he concluded with a wry smile and a glint of defiance. "I'm dieting and exercising, trying to outlast him. I want to see the transition."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Castro vows to go after the 'new rich'

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Dec. 02, 2005

Castro vows to go after the 'new rich'
Cuban leader Fidel Castro pledged to battle corruption. In one example, thousands of college-age youths have become involved in fuel distribution by taking over gas stations and riding in tankers.

Financial Times

(economist and recently released dissident, discussing Cuba's corruption crackdown)

Fidel Castro is mobilizing tens of thousands of young people and threatening a Cultural Revolution-style humiliation of corrupt officials in what the Cuban leader characterizes as a do-or-die struggle against graft, pilfering and the ``new rich.''

Oscar Espinosa, an economist and dissident recently released from prison, said the campaign would create more hardship and illegal activity. ''What we need here is market reform, like in China or Vietnam. By returning to command economics and repression, they are simply throwing gas on the fire,'' he said.

''What you have here is a classic Chinese-style, anti-rightist campaign of Mao's days,'' a foreign banker said.

Castro's initiative is part of a broader effort, government sources say, to make effective use of increased resources flowing into the country from generous Venezuelan energy financing and payment for medical services, as well as Chinese soft trade and development credits.

The first target of the campaign -- dubbed ''Operation July 26'' after Castro's movement in the late 1950s that brought him to power -- has been the country's fuel-distribution system.

Thousands of college-age youths have taken over petrol stations and started working in refineries and riding in fuel trucks to monitor an industry where up to half of this precious resource was being stolen, according to receipts since the takeover began a month ago.

Cuba registered its first balance-of-payments surplus since 1989 last year, and expects another surplus this year, despite an increase of more than 30 percent in imports.

''We need to get back to a situation where the state pays a wage that can meet basic needs and in proportion to what one contributes to society,'' says Anicia García, head of Havana University's Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

She points out that state salaries and pensions have increased on average by more than 20 percent this year and that there are more consumer goods, mainly imported household appliances, and food available.

''We are taking advantage of the better situation to deal with the social problems that appeared during the crisis that came with the end of the Soviet Union. For example, that one could do better not working than working, or as a hotel bellboy or gas-station attendant make more than a brain surgeon,'' she said.


The Communist party launched an assault two years ago on ''corruption and illegalities'' within its ranks and the state administration as it recentralized economic activity and control over hard currency after what it characterized as ''liberal errors'' in the 1990s.

Bureaucratic corruption and a booming black market are nothing new in state-run economies like Cuba's, but Castro said recently that market-oriented reforms such as decentralization, authorization of small private initiatives and circulation of the dollar alongside the peso, among other emergency measures taken after European communism's collapse, ``increased these ills to the point where they have taken on a certain massive character . . . and inequality has grown.''

Castro said he was mobilizing 26,000 young social workers to fight for a purer society and would mobilize more than 100,000 social workers and university students if needed, threatening to drag corrupt officials out in public.


Raúl Castro, the defense minister and second in the Cuban hierarchy after his older brother Fidel, is reported to have told party officials 18 months ago: ``Corruption will always be with us, but we must keep it at our ankles and never allow it to rise to our necks.''

But the drive apparently made little progress, and the military was forced to take over operations at the port of Havana in September to handle increased imports and stop theft by port workers and truckers.

''In this battle against vice, nobody will be spared,'' Fidel Castro said in a recent speech, apparently taking over the campaign from his brother. ``Either we defeat all these deviations and make our revolution strong, or the revolution dies.''

He blamed the ''new rich'' for Cuba's social ills, without defining who they were, except that they had access to hard currency.

The Cuban leader said social workers were organizing cells in neighborhoods to fight corruption and illegalities.