Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The End of an Era and a New, Hopeful Beginning

Cuba quiet after Castro announces resignation

Although the news that one of the longest-serving leaders in the world was officially stepping down sent ripples around the globe, Fidel Castro's resignation announcement barely registered in Cuba.

Castro, 81, revealed his plans in a letter published in the middle of the night in the online version of Cuba's state-run newspaper, Granma.

"I will not aspire to, nor will I accept the position of president of the council of state and commander in chief," Castro wrote. "I wish only to fight as a soldier of ideas. ... Perhaps my voice will be heard."

President Bush said Castro's decision ought to spark "a democratic transition" for Cuba.

"The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy and eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections," Bush said Tuesday in Rwanda. "The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty."

But the streets of Cuba's capital, Havana, reflected the normal comings and goings of residents. No gatherings or rallies erupted at Castro's news.

Despite the story later consuming the entire front page of the print version of Granma, complete with a banner headline, many Cubans said they hadn't heard the news.

Those who had were wary of offering their opinions.

"He's leaving the position because his age and illness don't let him work," one man said. "Let's see what comes."

"He's aware of his place in history, and he's going to keep on occupying that place in one way or another," a retiree said.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the U.S. embargo on Cuba will not be lifted in the near term.

Cuba's leaders plan to elect a president within days. Castro's brother Raúl, 76, the country's defense minister, has been named publicly as his successor.

"There's a lot of difficulty in day-to-day living," said CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who has visited Cuba several times.

"The question is: Will there be enough change?" she said. "If it is Raúl [as president], will he show there's a progress towards the kind of thing that the Cuban people want, which is openness, freedom, the ability to have enough wherewithal [to find jobs], the same kind of bread-and-butter issues that everybody all around the world wants?"

Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban dissident, said that no matter who the next leader of the country will be, the Cuban people "have more hope."

"Not because we trust his successor more than we trusted Fidel Castro but because there's a buzz among the people, and we want everything to go smoothly, peacefully, but the government cannot keep denying the people their space," Paya said.

Castro received treatment for intestinal problems two years ago and cited his "critical health condition" in the letter published Tuesday. He said "it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer."

He also said he realized that he had a duty to prepare Cubans for his absence.

"My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath," he said. "That's all I can offer."

At age 32, Castro led a band of guerrillas who overthrew a corrupt dictatorship in 1959. He went on to become a thorn in Washington's side by embracing communism and cozying up to the Soviet Union.

Castro reigned in Havana with an iron hand, defying a U.S. economic embargo intended to dislodge him.

In Miami, Florida, the news came as no surprise to Janisset Rivero, the executive director of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a group that works with dissidents in Cuba.

"I think there have been preparations taking place for quite a while to assure the crowning of Raúl Castro," she said Tuesday morning. "It doesn't mean any change to the system. It doesn't mean there will be freedom for the Cubans. One big dictator is replacing the other.

"It will be a big deal when political prisoners are released, when political parties are allowed to organize, when the country stops being ruled by a single party."

Polarizing figure

To leftist revolutionaries around the world, Castro, with his ubiquitous military fatigues and fiery oratory, became a hero and patron. But for hundreds of thousands of his countrymen who fled into exile, he became an object of intense hatred.

Castro clung to a socialist economic model and one-party Communist rule, even after the Soviet Union disintegrated and most of the rest of the world concluded that state socialism was a bankrupt idea whose time had come and gone.

"The most vulnerable part of his persona as a politician is precisely his continued defense of a totalitarian model that is the main cause of the hardships, the misery and the unhappiness of the Cuban people," said Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights advocate and critic of the Castro regime.

And yet, his defenders in Cuba point to what they see as social progress made under Castro's revolution, including racial integration and universal education and health care. They blame the U.S. embargo for the country's economic woes.

"What Fidel achieved in the social order of this country has not been achieved by any poor nation, and even by many rich countries, despite being submitted to enormous pressures," said Jose Ramon Fernandez, a Cuban vice president.

Castro's staying power was a source of irritation to Cuban exiles.

The center of the exile community is Miami, where the Cuban American National Foundation became a powerful lobbying group courted by U.S. politicians.

Road to revolution

Castro was born August 13, 1926, in Oriente Province in eastern Cuba. His father, Angel, was a wealthy landowner originally from Spain; his mother, Lina, had been a maid to Angel's first wife.

Educated in Jesuit schools, Castro earned a law degree and offered free legal services to the poor. In 1952, at the age of 25, he ran for the Cuban parliament. But just before the election, the government was overthrown by Fulgencio Batista, whose dictatorship put Castro on the road to revolution.

In 1953, Castro took part in an unsuccessful coup attempt that made him famous but sent him to prison.

He was released in 1955 and lived in exile in the United States and Mexico, where he organized a guerrilla group with Raúl Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary.

The next year, 81 fighters landed in Cuba. Most were killed; the Castros, Guevara and other survivors fled into the Sierra Maestra Mountains along the southeastern coast, where they waged a guerrilla campaign against the Batista government that finally brought it down in 1959.

Although the United States quickly recognized the new Cuban government, tensions arose after Castro began nationalizing American-owned factories and plantations. In January 1961, Washington broke off diplomatic ties.

Less than four months later, a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles, armed with U.S. weapons, landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in a disastrous attempt to overthrow Castro.

Two weeks after the Bay of Pigs, Castro formally declared Cuba a socialist state.

In October 1962, Cuba became the focus of a tense world crisis after the Soviet Union installed nuclear weapons in the country. President Kennedy demanded that the Soviets remove them and quarantined the island, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The Soviet Union backed down and removed the weapons.

Castro is believed to have fathered eight children with four women. His longtime companion, Dalia Soto del Valle, is the mother of five of his sons.

Analysts: Castro still in political picture

Fidel Castro's resignation does not mean the longtime ruler is bowing out of Cuba's political life, analysts say.

"Fidel Castro will continue to play a significant role in Cuba as an adviser, as the village elder who expresses opinion in articles, who gives sight as to where the country should go," said Luis Carlos Nino, an economic and political analyst on Latin America for Global Insight, a risk-assessment firm based in London, England.

"I don't see Castro pulling the strings on details on the planning and executing of the government's daily activities."

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst for the nongovernmental National Security Archive at George Washington University, said he agreed.

"He is going from being commander in chief to commentator in chief in that he's going to continue to write an opinion column for the Communist Party newspaper," Kornbluh said.

"So while he's resigning from office, he certainly is not resigning from being a participant in Cuba's future."

Castro, 81, handed over many of his presidential powers to his brother Raúl after becoming ill in July 2006. For some analysts, the president's announcement Tuesday marks the second in a two-stage transformation of power in Cuba and isn't a surprise at all.

It's a "consolidation of that transition in power" that does not mean "the end of Fidel Castro on the political scene ... but a restructuring of power within the government," said Simon Reid-Henry of the Queen Mary, University of London.

Kornbluh called Castro's resignation "an amazing situation."

"Most leaders of his kind don't leave office except in a coffin or during a military coup," he said. "He is now going out on his own terms, securing a smooth transition to his brother and to a younger generation of leadership in Cuba."

While Raúl Castro, 76, is the presumed successor to his brother, the official decision will come Sunday when the country's 31-member council of ministers meets to nominate the next president.

The move is the culmination of national elections that began at the provincial level in December and moved to a higher level in the past few weeks.

Raúl is aging as well, Kornbluh said. "The generation that led the Cuban revolution 50 years ago is basically coming to an end," he said.

Kornbluh predicts Sunday's elections also will put in place leaders in their 40s and 50s, possibly those such as Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Fernando Ramirez, a senior Communist Party official and former ambassador to the United States.

"I think you'll see a younger leadership in the future, and a leadership that is, I think, ready to have better relations with the United States of America," Kornbluh said.

Raul offers Cuba a quieter Castro voice

While Fidel Castro historically mesmerized his countrymen with dramatic, extemporaneous speeches stretching over hours, brother Raul is known for his businesslike, even boring delivery, rarely bothering to look up from prepared texts.

A full head shorter than his brother, he doesn't even look like Fidel, sporting a mustache rather than a dramatic beard and lacking his sibling's Romanesque profile and athletic physique.

But many believe Raul has been long underestimated in his brother's huge shadow. Though he has yet to deliver on any of the economic reforms he has hinted at while leading a caretaker government since 2006, Cubans seem excited and hopeful that Raul's pragmatic style of leadership could bring real improvements to their everyday lives.

They appreciated Raul's frank acknowledgment that Cuban salaries are too low for basic necessities, even in a communist society where food, rent, education and health care are heavily subsidized. They smiled and nodded when Raul angrily criticized officials who made excuses for a transportation system on "the point of collapse."

U.S. policy has long sought to undermine the succession from Fidel to Raul, despite his role as Cuba's constitutionally designated heir. Cuban exiles in Miami and Washington bureaucrats have dreamed that Cuba's communist system would die with Fidel, opening the door to a U.S.-style democracy and free markets. President George W. Bush even appointed a commission to plan the transition.

But dispassionate Cuba watchers say Raul will likely rule the nation for the foreseeable future.

Raul "is the linchpin in Fidel's succession strategy," former longtime CIA analyst Brian Latell wrote in his 2002 book, "After Fidel."

As the world's longest-ruling defense minister, Raul can count on the loyalty of top generals, the control of up to 50,000 active troops and an arsenal including Soviet-era tanks and fighter planes.

He also is a political hard-liner who belonged to a Communist youth group even before the revolution. His older brother didn't publicly embrace socialism until 1961.

"Raul is younger than I, more energetic than I. He can count on much more time," Fidel said when he officially designated Raul as his successor at a Communist Party congress in 1997.

Raul was deeply involved in Cuba's military involvement in Angola and Ethiopia during the 1970s. And since Cuba lost financial backing with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Raul has guided the Cuban military's emergence as a leading economic force, operating tourist sites, becoming a major food producer and experimenting with limited market-style reforms.

Although he prefers to work behind the scenes, Raul led thousands of chanting, flag-waving citizens who demanded the return in 2000 of little Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned while fleeing with him to Florida.

In a rare 2001 interview, Raul encouraged the United States to make peace with Cuba while Fidel was still alive.

"I am among those who believe that it would be in imperialism's interest to try, with our irreconcilable differences, to normalize relations as much as possible during Fidel's life," Raul told state television.

Unlike his brother, Raul has long shared low-key communications with U.S. military counterparts -- information on hurricanes, immigrant smuggling, drug trafficking and relations with the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.

In his first public statement after Fidel fell ill, Raul said Cuba was open to normalizing diplomatic relations, but only "on an equal plane." He later extended the olive branch again, saying that "After almost half a century, we are willing to wait patiently until the moment when commonsense prevails in Washington."

Such overtures have been dismissed outright by the Bush administration. After Fidel Castro announced his resignation on Tuesday, Washington officials rejected any chance of ending the U.S. embargo on Cuba, calling Raul "Fidel Lite."

This is a very unfortunate attitude for our historically wishy-washy, hypersensitive, hypocritical government to take. Lessons of the past never fail on our elected officials (and those we never elect). I suggest a different and positive approach, be open-minded to the possibilities all of this brings.

Viva Cuba Libre!


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