Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The brink of change

The brink of change
By James Pringle
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fidel Castro - ever a strange mixture of charm and ruthlessness - was in
expansive mood a few years ago when I met him in, of all places, Kuala
Lumpur, where he had come to give a speech about one of his pet hatreds
- globalization.

I had interviewed him before, while working as a Reuters correspondent
in Havana, where I lived for about 18 months in the late 1960s, and as
we chatted I asked him about an apparent reversal in his hard-line
against those globally admired harbingers of change, the Beatles. Back
in the 60s, I reminded him, the music of the Fab Four had been banned in
Cuba for "ideological diversion." Yet he had recently unveiled a bronze
statue of John Lennon to the strains of "All You Need Is Love," calling
the group's late frontman "a revolutionary." Why the change of heart, I

Castro said he was sorry he had not met Lennon before he was killed by a
deranged gunman in New York City in 1980. "It was only much later I
learned about his life, his thinking and ideas," he said.

Later, after his speech, he put his arm round my shoulder - something he
does - and said: "But there are so many other changes in Cuba. You
should come back and see for yourself."

I had made periodic visits to Havana in the 1970s and 80s and had always
found Castro relatively accessible. (Knowing I had been in Vietnam, he
used to talk to me during state receptions about the Vietnam War - often
he was surrounded by student girls from North Vietnam who innocently
held him by his sleeves.)

But when I finally took Castro up on his suggestion in 2003 the timing
was not good. The government had just executed three men who had
hijacked a ferry in an attempt to escape to the United States. Moreover,
Castro had launched a political crackdown, arresting 75 dissidents.
After cursory trials, several were sentenced to up to 28 years in the
Cuban gulag.

Given these political tensions, there was no possibility of an
interview, and today I doubt that there ever will be another chance.
Reports from Havana during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of
the triumph of Castro's revolution said the 82-year-old leader's
non-appearance - he has not been seen in public since having abdominal
surgery in July, 2006 - had led to speculation that his health was

Castro has been in the public eye for half a century, and it is unlikely
he would miss a crucial appearance if he could help it. Instead, his
younger brother Raúl, 77, who took over as president last February, gave
the principal oration in Santiago de Cuba, where, on Jan. 1, 1959,
Castro proclaimed victory against the country's military dictator,
General Fulgencio Batista.

Despite the romantic aura of the revolution, Castro's Cuba was a
hard-line Communist State. When he came to power, Castro asked his
right-hand man, the Argentine Che Guevara, to oversee the summary trials
of Batista cronies and other people deemed enemies of the state. Che, a
ruthless ideologue totally unlike the romantic image of him presented
today, ordered hundreds to be shot by firing squad. (The bullet holes
can still be seen at La Cabaña, a Spanish colonial fortress).

Raúl's anniversary speech was hardly uplifting. He declared that "the
enemy" (the United States) would "never cease to be aggressive,
treacherous and dominant" and that during the next 50 years "we will
continue to struggle incessantly." His words must have been wearisome in
a country where market shelves are usually half empty and the prospects
of young people finding jobs with decent pay are negligible.

To me, the most extraordinary thing about the Castro brothers is that
they have not shown enough confidence to entrust the revolution to the
next generation of leaders. Instead, the heads of the only Communist
state in the Americas are following the path of Communist China, where
Mao went senile long before he died, the Soviet Union, where Stalin
clung to power to the bitter end, and many Communist states in Eastern
Europe whose strongmen were ousted in popular, sometimes violent,

Of course, one does not write off a man with the fortitude and strength
of Fidel Castro, but there is a sense that Cuba is on the brink of
change. President Barrack Obama is likely to lighten, but not abandon,
the 46-year-old U.S. embargo by easing family travel and cash
remittances from Cuban-Americans. He also has indicated a readiness to
talk to Cuba's leaders, and even Raúl said during the celebrations that
he and the new U.S. president must meet "to begin to solve our problems."

Most of the 11.4 million Cubans would doubtlessly support such
initiatives. Opening Cuba to the benefits of globalization will almost
certainly not end what Fidel Castro has wrought, such as the competent
health care and educational systems, even though they are fraying at the
edges. But there is no knowing what kind of change there will be if and
when ordinary American tourists are officially permitted by Washington
to visit.

Raúl Castro has made some tentative openings to free markets in
agricultural produce and the tourist sector. But it is time for him to
open up the economy and the political culture, and give Cuba's
potentially dynamic citizens something to improve their lives. After
all, his moves to ease restrictions on tourism helped bring a record 2.4
million tourists last year to enjoy Havana's faded but beguiling charms
- the rooftop view of the old city from the Hotel Inglaterra, the old
Pontiacs cruising through the streets, and the quiet appeal of "Parque
John Lennon," where you can see school children busily polishing his statue.

James Pringle is a former Latin American correspondent of Newsweek.

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