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Posted March 10, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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OAKLAND ROSS | [url=http://www.thestar.com]http://www.thestar.com[/url]

First, they took Kabul.

Next, they took Baghdad.

Now, some people are beginning to wonder how many more weeks will meander past before the armed forces of the United States of America train their gun sights on the sun-baked streets of Havana.

After all, the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro stands accused by Washington of manufacturing biological weapons and exporting terrorism, among other crimes.

Castro is also, by any standard, a dictator. A certain former world leader named Saddam Hussein was recently put of business for less.

And so, to hear some people tell it, U.S. smart bombs could be igniting the tropical sky over Cuba almost any day now.

Take the island’s foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque.

“There’s a real danger that what we are dealing with is the invention of pretexts for a military intervention against Cuba,” he said last week in an interview with Clarin, a Buenos Aires newspaper, in reaction to recent bellicose statements by some fairly senior officials in Washington.

“There’s a real danger that an aggression against Cuba will be tried.”

Of course, Americans have been talking tough about Cuba, and Cubans have been reacting in anxious defiance, for several decades now and Washington has yet to muster its forces for an invasion of the communist outpost of 11 million people, located just across the Straits of Florida from Key West.

Lately, however, both the threat and the fears of a possible U.S. military action against the island have become a mite more credible.

Since launching its global war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has clearly demonstrated that America’s enemies had better be prepared to face America’s guns. It isn’t just tough talk any more.

“It’s almost inevitable that the Cubans would be concerned about regime change,” says Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, “because the Bush administration insists on talking about it.”

There’s no question that the rhetoric on both sides of the straits has been growing increasingly strident in recent months, but almost no one outside the Cuban government or the Latin America section of the U.S. State Department seems to put much stock in the prospect of the feuding countries actually going to war or, anyway, not now.

Not while Fidel Castro is still alive.

“I don’t think there is any realistic probability that the United States will intervene in Cuba while Fidel is alive,” says Carmelo Mesa Lago, author of a soon-to-be-published book on Cuba in the 21st century.

“I mean, this would be crazy.”

Granted, many people used similar adjectives “foolhardy,” “misguided,” “wrong” to describe the U.S. mission in Iraq, and that didn’t stop American bombs from raining down on Baghdad.

But this is an election year in the United States. As he seeks to renew his lease on the White House, Bush is likely to be wary of foreign military entanglements that might not work out exactly as planned.

Besides, Castro is 77 years old.

In Cuba, this is the autumn of the patriarch, and policy-makers in Washington and elsewhere have started to play a waiting game. They are waiting for Fidel to die.

“There have been several incidents in public in which he either fainted or was very frail,” says Mesa Lago. “He talks about his death more frequently. I think he feels the realization that he’s nearing his death.”

Last December, Roger Noriega, the relentlessly hawkish U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, mused publicly about Washington’s role in a Cuba without Castro.

He did not mince his words, arguing that the United States must be prepared to intervene within hours of Castro’s death to prevent his compinches his accomplices from cementing their hold on power.

That certainly sounded like a call to arms.

On the other hand, the Cuban leader is still physically vigorous and intellectually engaged at least, he is most days and he could well be delivering his trademark four-hour speeches about the latest sugar cane harvest long after Noriega and like-minded officials have departed government service to pursue other career opportunities, as they surely will be obliged to do if John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful, triumphs over Bush in November.

Still, more than four decades have churned past since Castro and Che Guevara marched down from the lofty jungles of the Sierra Maestra in 1959 to oust Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and launch the island on its tortuous path toward communism a la tropicana.


————————————————————————————————————————
`In many respects, it’s a regime that’s already collapsed, except for the central figure’

Joe Garcia, director of Cuban exile group

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These days, there’s an unmistakable end-of-an-era tinge to the sea breeze in Havana, and few observers predict that Castro’s quixotic blend of central planning, revolutionary sloganeering, fervent anti-Americanism, and sun-and-sand tourism will long survive, once its chief choreographer has danced his final mambo.

“But for Castro, there is no state,” says Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, largest of the many organizations representing the Cuban exile community in the United States.

“In many respects, it’s a regime that’s already collapsed, except for the central figure.”

Thanks to a combination of domineering will and extraordinary personal magnetism, Castro has been able hold the line against political and economic reform of his country’s creaky socialist dictatorship.

Cuba’s people have tended to support their commander-in-chief, even while they disagree with much or most of what he does.

It’s unlikely that Castro’s chosen successor will be able to perform the same paradoxical trick.

Castro’s chosen successor is Raul, his younger brother.

Currently the country’s vice-president and head of its armed forces, Raul Castro is a murky figure about whom little is known.

He is widely regarded as an able administrator and a somewhat more pragmatic thinker than his older brother, but he is 72, with health problems of his own, and he lacks Fidel’s flamboyance and charm.

A cult of the personality with Raul at its dreary centre would last about as long as it takes to down a mojito on a hot night in Old Havana and that’s not very long.

“The problem is, Raul doesn’t have the charisma that Fidel has, and the economic situation is so bad,” says Ana Faya, a former member of Cuba’s Communist party who now analyzes the country’s affairs for a research centre in Ottawa.

She believes that Raul and other top Cuban officials, probably including National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and one or two senior army officers, will figure out very quickly that they cannot sustain Fidel’s revolution without the services of a large, bearded orator clad in olive-green fatigues a living, breathing Fidel.

They will have little choice but to follow a course of gradual but steady reform, either that or face a wave of pent-up and potentially violent unrest.

“I think there’s a lot of discontent that hasn’t come out,” Faya says, “especially among young people who do not have a lot of hope.”

If Fidel’s death comes quickly, and if his successors act decisively to meet a hunger for change, she believes that Havana and Washington will be able to normalize relations over time and without bloodshed.

The U.S. economic embargo, imposed against Cuba in the early 1960s, would at last be lifted. Americans would flock to the beaches of Varadero, something they are legally barred from doing now.

McDonald’s restaurants would clash with the quaint, crumbling streets of colonial Havana.

Cubans might even be encouraged to start up their own businesses, speak openly about politics and possibly read all about it in their own newspapers eventually.

“But we’re talking about best-case scenarios,” Faya warns.

“We do not know what might happen if mistakes are made.”

If, for example, Fidel were to enter a long period of physical and mental decline, allowing his regime to deteriorate slowly while internal power struggles turned angry and mean, Cuba could face a stormy interregnum indeed.

In such circumstances, the likelihood of U.S. military intervention might well increase substantially.

For the moment, however, and despite the harsh rhetoric that sometimes resounds between Washington and Havana, the two countries are getting along passably well.

Following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Michelle in 2001, Washington allowed U.S. food producers to sell their goods to Cuba, albeit on a cash-only basis.

Since then, according to one estimate, Cuba has purchased more than $425 million (U.S.) worth of yanqui foodstuffs, and the despised imperial power to the north now ranks as the island’s seventh-largest source of imports.

Meanwhile, Texas oilmen and myriad U.S. exporters are clamouring to do business with Cuba, politics be damned and in spite of many anti-Castro zealots in Bush’s camp who once were counting the days before the U.S. Marines stormed into Havana Bay.

That doesn’t seem likely now, not while Fidel Castro is alive. But, once he’s gone, no one really knows what might happen, and all bets are off.

“He’s in charge and he’s working,” says Faya of the Cuban leader. “He seems to be in good shape. Of course, he’s a very old man.”

And getting older every day.

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