By Carol J. Williams | Los Angeles Times
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 battle are exercising, eating right and trying to outlast one another.
Septuagenarian Cuban exiles like Alfredo Durán, a Bay of Pigs veteran and Miami lawyer, proclaim themselves fit for the day that Fidel Castro will die 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 marked 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 lately has appeared well enough to stand for hours giving speeches 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 past 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.
Even Raul Castro, as head of the defense ministry, has had a guiding hand in drawing foreign investment into the booming tourism sector, and analysts note 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 health care under communism and blame economic failures on the U.S. sanctions imposed since 1960. While most Cubans are proud of the early social accomplishments of 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.
“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.
“The situation in Cuba is worse than ever,” said Estrella Fresnillo, a well-known Cuban journalist who left Cuba last year to come to the United States, joining a growing wave of immigrants. “I’ve never seen so many blackouts, and the hurricanes coming through were horrible. I am part of a generation of people that is disillusioned.”
The U.S. State Department said several factors have contributed to an uptick in migrants fleeing to Florida. Aside from widespread blackouts, the Cuban government is taking a much bigger bite ó up to 18 percent ó of every dollar sent by relatives. And new U.S. rules imposed in 2004 restrict the amount of remittances U.S. relatives can legally send to their families to $100 a month.
Now, Cuban government officials are openly worrying that the generation of disaffected youth that grew up with scarcity and hard times since the early 1990s will be the very catalyst that destroys Castro’s legacy.
“This country can self-destruct,” Castro warned during a five-hour speech Nov. 17, according to The Miami Herald. He blasted corruption and profiteering off stolen government goods, such as gasoline.
In the following weeks, he announced economic changes, including salary increases and electricity-rate increases aimed at the “new rich” who damage socialism’s credibility.
In a Dec. 23 speech at a National Assembly session, Felipe Perez Roque, a former Castro aide who represents the younger generation of Cuban officials, said that 1.5 million Cuban adults were about 10 years old in 1990, when Cuba began to feel the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of its massive subsidies.
Those children are now grown-ups who take cheap housing and free medical care and education for granted, Perez Roque said, and never witnessed Cuba’s pre-revolution poverty.
But even those openly disparaging of Castro, like an unemployed carpenter named Ivan, say their countrymen 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 and a possible explosion and violent crackdown like Beijing’s bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square confrontation.
U.S. policy toward Cuba has long sought to ignite discontent with Castro’s regime by imposing ever-harsher sanctions, including measures in 2004 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 about 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.
U.S. proponents of more engagement with Cuba say the U.S. is missing a chance to lay the groundwork now for real change in post-Castro Cuba.
“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,” said Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration.
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 possibility for breaking the U.S.-Cuba standoff before Castro passes: oil.
If reported oil discoveries in Cuban territorial waters prove significant, U.S. energy giants might begin pressuring the administration to ease sanctions, said Glenn Baker, Cuba Project coordinator for the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.
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.”
Rep. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, an advocate of broader agricultural trade with Cuba, has been floating a measure that would exempt energy companies from the embargo imposed in 1960, on grounds that exploiting the Cuban oil would decrease U.S. reliance on the Middle East for energy and boost U.S. national security.
For Durán, the Bay of Pigs veteran who spent more than a year in Cuban prisons after the failed 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion was defeated, the exile community’s strategy of waiting for Castro to die is tantamount to allowing their Communist adversaries to declare victory.
But the 70-year-old’s views have moderated. He now heads the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which advocates a peaceful transition and reconciliation between those who left and those who stayed.
“I’m dieting and exercising, trying to outlast him. I want to see the transition.”