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."