Monday, February 26, 2007

Engaging Cuba's next generation of leaders

Engaging Cuba's next generation of leaders

HAVANA - More than six months after Cuban President Fidel Castro
"temporarily" ceded power to his brother, Raul, this country appears to
be running on autopilot.

Tourists from Canada and Europe fill the rooms of upscale hotels in the
Old Havana section of Cuba's capital. At night, there are few empty
seats at restaurants in the once-fashionable neighborhoods of Vedado and

The Galiano shopping district in Central Havana has a steady flow of
Cubans. Some have money to spend in the "dollar stores" that offer
high-priced consumer goods. But most are there simply to window shop or
buy whatever they can afford in the poorly stocked pesos stores where
most Cubans shop.
The food shortages, the power blackouts, the desire for a better
conditions and the widespread disdain among Cubans for the long-running
American economic embargo are all part of the matrix of life in this

The Cuban people are a resilient lot. Despite all that ails their
country - and the list is long - they have life expectancy and literacy
rates equal to those in the United States, and a lower infant mortality
rate, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook.

Castro, the world's longest ruling head of government, may be in failing
health, but that hasn't put this nation in a tailspin, as many in
Washington and Miami had hoped. Cuba's government is in transition. But
for most of the country's 11.4 million people, Castro's slow exit from
power has brought few changes.

While the Bush administration has created a commission to plot how to
"hasten" Cuba's transition to a democracy, Cuban leaders call that
effort wishful thinking - and political pandering to Cuban Americans.

"The Cuban revolution is completely transcendental," Ruben Remigio
Ferro, the head of Cuba's Supreme Court, told me. "The revolution is
bigger than Fidel. It won't end when Fidel's life ends."

Remigio, 52, is part of the Cuban power structure that American
politicians and anti-Castro Cubans rarely acknowledge. For them, Cuba
and Castro have been synonymous for nearly half a century. But this
country's political structure actually has many layers from which its
next leader, looking beyond Fidel and Raul Castro, likely will emerge.

One of them is Ricardo Alarcon, the National Assembly president who told
me that Cuba's enemies are wrong to believe that this country will come
unglued after Castro leaves the political stage. Cuba, he says, already
has successfully weathered that power shift.

"It was already proven when Castro gave power to Raul more than six
months ago," Alarcon said. "The only noise, the only turbulence, was in
Miami. ... The fact is that he (Castro) is recovering pretty well and
the country is continuing to function pretty well without any
interruptions due to his absence."

Alarcon is one of several members of Cuba's governing hierarchy who is
believed to be a potential successor to the Castro brothers. Others who
are often mentioned are Carlos Lage, the country's economic czar, and
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. These aren't household names in
Washington, but they ought to be.

In 1960, C. Wright Mills wrote that most of what people were reading
about Cuba in the U.S. press "is far removed from the realities and the
meaning of what is going on in Cuba today." His book, "Listen, Yankee:
the Revolution in Cuba," criticized America's ignorance of the island

Forty-seven years later, his charge still resonates.

Few U.S. news organizations have bureaus in Cuba. That's despite the
impact that U.S.-Cuba relations have on domestic politics in the United
States (notwithstanding efforts by a succession of U.S. presidents to
squeeze the economic life out of Cuba).

While media organizations routinely cover the few Cubans who steal away
in small boats for the United States, they fail to report on the
thousands allowed to fly into exile each year under an immigration
accord reached between the two countries in the early 1990s.

This warped coverage allows politicians in Washington - and Cuban
activists in Miami - to demonize Castro's regime. And with a leadership
change in Cuba looming, it's allowed them to delude Americans into
believing the Bush administration has a role to play in this transition.

Cuba is approaching an important crossroad. Control of its government
will soon pass from its revolutionary old guard to a new generation of
leaders. The United States should seek to engage, not enrage, those leaders.

Write Wickham at

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