A New Generation Stands By in Cuba

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 21, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 20 -- They've traveled the world. Surfed the Web. Zinged text messages. And watched news direct from the BBC and CNN, rather than filtered through a government censor.

Bombarded by ideas from abroad, a generation of Cuban political leaders who came of age after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution is preparing to inherit it. Many of them, now in their 40s and 50s, have developed a more open political outlook than their fathers, partly because of the thriving black market in outlawed Internet connections that in Cuba have cracked open a window on the world.

It remains to be seen how Fidel's 76-year-old brother, Raúl Castro, who is expected to be named president Sunday, will incorporate the next generation into his government. But Cubans and outside analysts say that given the personal experiences of these younger leaders -- especially the elite, who have more privileges than the general population -- they might further nudge open the flow of information and ideas from outside.

"We're going to see a change in style with this new generation," Manuel Cuesta, a Cuban dissident, said in a telephone interview from Havana. "Cuban society -- the powerful and the citizenry -- have more information. And people are asking more questions."

Fidel, who is 81 and ailing, initiated a rare moment of political uncertainty in Cuba when he resigned this week after nearly five decades in power. He and Raúl represent the generation known in Cuba as the "historicos," those who rose to power because of their active early support for the revolution. Those who fought with the Castros in the Sierra Maestra mountains have traditionally had special status.

But many of the historicos have died or fallen out of favor, giving way to a generation of Cubans for whom the revolution is merely a historical concept. Demographic shifts have brought new figures into Cuba's stratified political system, and more than 70 percent of Cuba's current population was born after the revolution.

Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, 42, belongs to this generation. He was the first Cuban born after the revolution to be named to Fidel's cabinet, and for the past 19 months, he has served under Raúl in the interim government created when Fidel turned over power temporarily because of illness.

Because Raúl is 76 and rumored to be in poor health himself, many Cuba experts view his expected tenure as transitional. Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage, who was 7 when Fidel Castro's rebels declared victory, are the top contenders outside the Castro family to become Cuba's future leader. Both are expected to retain leadership posts when the National Assembly picks the next head of state Sunday.

Older Cuban leaders once considered possible successors to the Castros -- such as National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, 70, and former interior minister Ramiro Valdés, 75 -- are now given almost no chance of ascending to the top post.

Below the elites is a vast network of regional political leaders. In recent years, the Castros have begun to inject more up-and-coming leaders into provincial Communist Party branches in order to expand their appeal to younger generations, Rafael Hernández, editor of the Cuban magazine Temas, said in an interview last year.

"It's often a young person, and many times a black person or a woman," Hernández said.

At 56, Lage is the oldest of the new wave of Cuban political figures and among the most influential. He worked alongside Raúl to open Cuba's economy to foreign investment in the 1990s after the country descended into a economic depression following the breakup of its biggest benefactor, the Soviet Union.

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