By TODD LEWAN | AP National Writer
On this side of The Puddle, as the sunlit sea between Florida and Cuba is known to some Cuban exiles here, the biggest news splash in quite some time was the fall of Fidel Castro.
It happened last October - although clearly, it was not the sort of fall for which Castro’s enemies have long hoped. For Cuba’s supreme commander did not fall from power, or fall off a cliff, or fall into a coma, or fall into a deep, unending sleep.
Fidel simply fell (actually, he stumbled first on a stair) while descending a stage in Santa Clara, where he had just given one of his gargantuan public addresses. With his bodyguards looking on incredulously, Castro went into an uncontrolled forward plunge which left the Cuban leader with a broken left knee and a hairline fracture to his upper right arm.
Helped to a folding chair, the 78-year-old president tried to make light of his spill. “As you can see,” Castro told television viewers, sweating into his olive green uniform from the pain, “I can still talk.”
On this side of The Puddle, talk of the fall was anything but light.
On this side of The Puddle, talk of the fall was anything but light.
Cable news networks played and replayed The Fall of Castro ad infinitum. Newspapers trumpeted the tumble on page one; the Web snapped, crackled and popped with speculation on Castro’s successor. Phone boards at talk-radio stations in south Florida lit up for days, listeners calling in to opine on Fidel’s final hours. (One caller claimed the accident was undoubtedly a sign from the cosmos, that Castro’s fate had already been written in the stars.)
If nothing else, Castro’s misstep and the flood of media coverage that followed it had Cuban-Americans of all ages, incomes, ethnicities and political stripes thinking long and hard about two undeniable facts.
Fidel - maker of revolution, torturer of 10 American presidents, indomitable icon of the Communist world - is old, and getting older.
Someday, Fidel’s Island will be Fidel-less - which, as it happens, is worrisome not only to Cubans who have remained on the alligator-shaped island, but to many of their American-based compatriots.
It’s not that Miami Cubans aren’t eager to see a Cuba sans Castro. Leaders of the exile community here expect huge carnival-like celebrations to break out all over Little Havana the hour Castro’s passing is announced.
What does worry them is the unknown: Once the champagne, wine, musicians and dancers are spent, what comes next?
Who, or what, exiles wonder, will be arriving with the dawn? And just how will the 11.2 million newly liberated Cubans - if, indeed, they turn out to be truly “liberated” - treat those among the 2 million or so Cuban exiles around the world who choose to return?
It’s not easy for Cubans to picture their homeland without Fidel; in a way, it would be like the citizens of Oz trying to imagine an Emerald City without the wizard.
Most Cubans have known no other leader, no other value system than the Communist system. And, as anyone who knows the island and its people will tell you, Fidel knows his constituency better than anyone else on Earth; he has been, is, always will be the quintessential Cubano.
Likewise, it is hard for Cubans to imagine a Fidel-less Cuba because the man designated as his successor, Castro’s younger brother, Raul (at 73, no youngster himself), does not appear to have much of the magnetism, cleverness or political magic that Fidel possesses.
It is this haziness about what comes next that makes Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, so sought after these days.
Suchlicki runs something called the “Cuban Transitional Project.” He oversees the collection, sifting and analyzing of data on Cuba, so that recommendations can be made on how Cuba might best be rehabbed once Fidel is no more.
In other words, he’s a Cuba fortune teller.
His output is impressive: the CTP has published 37 studies, created six databases, crafted four “mini” analyses, and cranked out an unceasing stream of fact sheets and monthly newsletters on Cuban politics, economics, demographics and human rights since 2002, the year the U.S. Agency for International Development began financing the project.
Suchlicki gets calls not only from think-tank types, but from Cuban-American entrepreneurs and multinational conglomerates- IBM, McDonald’s, Texaco, Anheuser-Busch - all of which are concocting “entrance strategy” plans for Cuba.
Such preparations have been made before. When the Berlin Wall came down, when the Soviet Union broke apart, when Pope John Paul II visited Havana, and a time in the late ‘90s when the U.S. government toyed with the idea of easing its Cuba trade embargo.
Now, once again, factory locations are being pinpointed on maps; hotels, freeways, shopping malls are being sketched out, contingency contracts are being signed, staffs designated, bank loans readied.
Companies most actively salivating over the Grand Opening are those that deal in tourism, telecommunications, vegetables, oil, fast food, and the Twins of Sin, tobacco and alcohol. But Suchlicki says American firms may have to wait a while - five to 10 years after Castro’s death - to take off the kid gloves.
“Bottom line? Cuba isn’t going to open up the way Eastern Europe did,” he says. “I think Cuba will probably act more like China, only with a lot less economic freedom. In the beginning, anyway.”
“The military. The armed forces are running 65 percent of the Cuban economy. Those guys are not going back to the barracks - not unless they think they can make more money for themselves by wearing a suit and a tie.”
The fact that Cuba is, literally, an island unto itself and equipped with a sophisticated homeland security apparatus should make it easier for the country’s generals to keep capitalism at sea for years, he adds.
“Of course, in the end, it will depend on how they manage the economy. Sure, it’s a disaster right now, but the Communists are helped by three factors: cheap Venezuelan oil, tourism, and remittances from Cuban exiles. I think they’ll be able to muddle through for a good, long while.”
And to Cuban-Americans who dream about returning to Cuba to become president, Suchlicki has one bit of counsel: “Get a good suntan.”
Nowadays, he notes, Cuba is one-third white and two-thirds black and mulatto - the reverse of what it was, racially, in 1959. “I can’t see mulattos in Cuba voting for a white, fat-cat Cuban-American.”
There are those who would say that Castro’s death will open up a chasm between old landowners or their offspring (all wielding yellowed documents of ownership) and families who have occupied and worked those lands for decades.
Multiple lawsuits over the same tract of land, clashes over crumbling apartments and factories - some fear it all may lead to civil war, and an exodus of Cuban rafters that will make the Mariel boatlift look like a dock party.
Carlos J. Castillo, 44, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Miami-Dade County, gets paid to consider these scenarios and plan for them.
He’s been planning for seven years now. His department gets word of Castro’s passing, on average, about eight times a year.
“We believe there will be a big migration, both ways,” Castillo, a Cuban-American born in Miami, says. “I think a lot of people here are going to want to take their boats to Cuba - to go visit, to see the family.”
That, or mass celebrations on Miami’s streets, he says, could be tricky. “Terror groups might seize on all of the activity in south Florida to stage a strike - here, or somewhere else in the U.S. - or, in the confusion, try to get people or equipment into the country.”
So, he plans for the worst, along with 25 other people from the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, National Guard and others.
In one scenario, Miami’s mayor orders the city’s ports and marinas closed. In another, Coast Guard vessels set up a blockade around the peninsula. “We learned from Mariel that we’re much more effective if we prevent people from getting out on the open waters,” Castillo says.
Centers would be set up to legally process Cubans who manage to slip through the cordon, he says, and 10,000 law enforcement officers would be posted immediately around Miami to keep an eye on the street parties.
But does he actually think chaos will erupt when Castro dies?
“A lot of people assure me there will be a free-for-all over there,” Castillo says. “Me, I just don’t see it.”
There are those in Little Havana who say that a tsunami of Miami exiles will wash over the Caribbean island upon Castro’s death, leaving golden arches, freshly paved highways, spanking new Art Deco hotels, and lots of smiles in their wake.
Antonio Jorge, a renowned guru of Cuban economics who teaches political economy at Florida International University, says these rosy predictions are hokum. Studies, he says, show that fewer than 100,000 of the more than 1.2 million Cuban exiles in the United States will move back to their homeland for good, even after Castro passes.
“You dread to think what it will take to bring Cuba back even to where it was in 1959,” says Jorge, who, in 1959, was Cuba’s chief economist and undersecretary of the treasury. “Castro has succeeded, quite well, I’m afraid, in developing underdevelopment.”
Just to rebuild the island’s highways, bridges, phone networks, sewage and drainage systems - not to mention airports, electric grids, ports - “we’re talking about $80 billion and 15 to 20 years,” he says.
And the longer Fidel remains in power, he says, the more things will deteriorate, and the higher the reconstruction price tag will go.
In south Florida, Cuban Americans operate more than 80,000 businesses, and some are expected to invest in a post-Castro Cuba. But without the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and big, private U.S. banks to finance big ventures, Jorge says, the reconstruction of Cuba will go nowhere fast.
“I don’t see how many younger people will be able to go it alone. They just won’t have enough money.”
YUCAS - young, upscale Cuban-Americans - may have plenty of capitalistic know-how, energy and spirit, but will they be able to impart the values they learned in America on a nation of islanders who may not necessarily see mass-consumerism as an entirely good thing?
Jorge, and others, wonder.
“Cubans have never been pure, savage capitalists, the way Americans are,” the economist says, wistfully. “People forget that. Cuba will have to be rebuilt in the model of a Scandinavian country - say, Sweden.”
In other words, a socialist-leaning state?
“That’s right. Look how hard it is to get Americans to agree to reform Social Security - in a rich country like this. Can you imagine how hard it will be to have Cubans reverse the course of their economy?”