BY TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
He’s Public Enemy No. 1 in Cuba and relishes the role.
James Cason, America’s top diplomat in Havana, got right to work after arriving two years ago. He journeyed across the island, meeting with political dissidents and other supposed “subversives.” He urged them to fight for democracy and handed out tens of thousands of books and shortwave radios.
Cuban authorities reacted quickly, jailing 75 dissidents and journalists and banning Cason’s countryside jaunts. But that hasn’t ended the U.S. official’s crusade.
More than 4,000 Cubans visit Cason’s Havana headquarters every month. They get free Internet access. They pick up books and pro-democracy literature. And they sit glued to cable television, which is unavailable to most of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants.
“We used to have an outreach program. Now we have an inreach program,” Cason said in an interview. Cuban authorities “would love to stop it. But they can’t.”
Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, isn’t amused. He accuses the Bush administration of interfering with the country’s internal affairs and violating international law. And he calls Cason a “fourth-rate” bureaucrat.
Cason, expected to remain in Cuba for one more year, said he doesn’t mind such talk. Sitting outside his sprawling $35 million ambassador’s residence in Havana, he pulled a black badge from his shirt pocket. It was an Army corporal’s pin.
“I’m going to wear this until the day I leave Cuba,” Cason said. “I may be just a corporal, but I’m proud of it. I’m closer to the ground, closer to the people.”
Alarcon, he adds, is the true bureaucrat. He leads Cuba’s national assembly, which meets only two times a year and has not voted against any government initiatives since the beginning of the revolution in 1959, Cason said.
“I don’t call him Alarcon. I call him `Alacran.’ Scorpion. I wonder why the Cubans don’t like me,” he said.
He paused for a moment, sipping a rum-laced mojito, Cuba’s national drink. Cuba’s government, he said, is a crumbling, bankrupt regime. No one knows when it will fall, but it’s going to be sometime soon and it is inevitable, he said.
“We know there’s going to be a transition and we know it’s not going to be much longer.”
But Cubans “are going to have a brilliant future,” because they are educated, creative and hard-working, he said.
Still, ridding the country of socialism is going to be painful and difficult, he said.
Key to the country’s future is President Fidel Castro, who shattered his knee and broke his arm when he fell in October. Little will change in Cuba while the 78-year-old leader is alive, the American diplomat contends.
“This is a one-man show. This is Fidel. Anybody who thinks he’s going to be a democrat is nuts. This guy’s not going to change.”
But after Castro fades from the scene, Cuban leaders who care nothing about socialism are going to emerge, Cason said.
“There are reformists out there. And when the opportunity comes, they’ll flip-flop and say, `I’ve been a democrat for all my life.’”
Expected to succeed Castro is his brother, Raul Castro, chief of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces. Many Cuba watchers see him as less radical than Fidel Castro and open to economic reforms.
But if the 73-year-old Raul dies first, that could lessen the chances of a smooth, peaceful transition to democracy, Cason said.
Bush administration officials have said that if asked, they will give massive economic and material aid to a future democratic government in Cuba.
Officials in Cuba aren’t convinced. They say they don’t trust Americans and believe the United States would invade the country if given the chance.
This month, Cuban officials are holding military exercises aimed at showing the United States that their guerrilla war strategy will defeat any invader.
“The Americans should watch closely so that they do not commit the same mistakes they made in Vietnam and are now making in Iraq,” Raul Castro told reporters this month.
Cason said Cubans don’t have to worry.
“We have no plans to invade. Our policy is clear and transparent. We want a rapid and peaceful transition.”
He said Cuban officials warn of an imminent American attack to distract Cubans from the country’s dismal economy.
The country has struggled since the former Soviet Union cut off $5.8 billion in annual cash and subsidies to Cuba more than a decade ago.
Short on cash, Castro banned the circulation of dollars in November and asked that Cubans exchange their greenbacks for Cuban pesos.
Cason estimates that ordinary Cubans had as much as $2 billion “stashed under the mattress” and that the new measures took $400 million to $700 million out of circulation.
Those who didn’t exchange their money have no confidence in the Cuban peso, however, and believe it will be worthless in the post-Castro era, Cason said.
“The only way it’ll be a hard currency is if it gets a huge dose of Viagra,” he said. Cuban officials have “no silver bullets out there to get their economy going.”
Castro loyalists call those words offensive and insulting.
Cason “is the personification of Bush in Cuba. Cason is - pardon the word - a beast. A tank of war. He’s not a diplomat,” said Lisandro Otero, a Cuban writer and intellectual who won the country’s national literature prize in 2002.