Thursday, March 29, 2007

U.S. should engage Cuba's next leaders

By DeWayne Wickham

[Wickham's column is distributed by Gannett News Service.]

More than six months after Cuban President Fidel Castro “temporarily” ceded power to his brother, Raul, this country appears to be running on autopilot.

Tourists from Canada and Europe fill the rooms of upscale hotels in the Old Havana section of Cuba's capital. At night, there are few empty seats at restaurants in the once-fashionable neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar.

The Galiano shopping district in central Havana has a steady flow of Cubans. Some have money to spend in the “dollar stores” that offer high-priced consumer goods. But most are there simply to window shop or buy whatever they can afford in the poorly stocked pesos stores where most Cubans shop.

The food shortages, the power blackouts, the desire for a better conditions and the widespread disdain among Cubans for the long-running American economic embargo are all part of the matrix of life in this country.
The Cuban people are a resilient lot. Despite all that ails their country — and the list is long — they have life expectancy and literacy rates equal to those in the United States, and a lower infant mortality rate, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook.

Castro, the world's longest ruling head of government, may be in failing health, but that hasn't put this nation in a tailspin, as many in Washington and Miami had hoped. Cuba's government is in transition. But for most of the country's 11.4 million people, Castro's slow exit from power has brought few changes.

While the Bush administration has created a commission to plot how to “hasten” Cuba's transition to a democracy, Cuban leaders call that effort wishful thinking — and political pandering to Cuban Americans.

“The Cuban revolution is completely transcendental,” Ruben Remigio Ferro, the head of Cuba's Supreme Court, told me. “The revolution is bigger than Fidel. It won't end when Fidel's life ends.”

Remigio, 52, is part of the Cuban power structure that American politicians and anti-Castro Cubans rarely acknowledge. For them, Cuba and Castro have been synonymous for nearly half a century. But this country's political structure actually has many layers from which its next leader, looking beyond Fidel and Raul Castro, likely will emerge.

One of them is Ricardo Alarcon, the National Assembly president who told me that Cuba's enemies are wrong to believe that this country will come unglued after Castro leaves the political stage. Cuba, he says, already has successfully weathered that power shift.

“It was already proven when Castro gave power to Raul more than six months ago,” Alarcon said. “The only noise, the only turbulence, was in Miami. ... The fact is that he (Castro) is recovering pretty well and the country is continuing to function pretty well without any interruptions due to his absence.”

Alarcon is one of several members of Cuba's governing hierarchy who is believed to be a potential successor to the Castro brothers. Others who are often mentioned are Carlos Lage, the country's economic czar, and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. These aren't household names in Washington, but they ought to be.

In 1960, C. Wright Mills wrote that most of what people were reading about Cuba in the U.S. press “is far removed from the realities and the meaning of what is going on in Cuba today.” His book, “Listen, Yankee: the Revolution in Cuba,” criticized America's ignorance of the island nation.

Forty-seven years later, his charge still resonates.

Few U.S. news organizations have bureaus in Cuba. That's despite the impact that U.S.-Cuba relations have on domestic politics in the United States (notwithstanding efforts by a succession of U.S. presidents to squeeze the economic life out of Cuba).

While media organizations routinely cover the few Cubans who steal away in small boats for the United States, they fail to report on the thousands allowed to fly into exile each year under an immigration accord reached between the two countries in the early 1990s.

This warped coverage allows politicians in Washington — and Cuban activists in Miami — to demonize Castro's regime. And with a leadership change in Cuba looming, it's allowed them to delude Americans into believing the Bush administration has a role to play in this transition.

Cuba is approaching an important crossroad. Control of its government will soon pass from its revolutionary old guard to a new generation of leaders. The United States should seek to engage, not enrage, those leaders.

Write Wickham at

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