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.
Cubans like to joke that Lage can put an audience to sleep with a speech faster than anyone. A pediatrician by training, he cuts an unthreatening figure, more mild-mannered accountant than firebrand rebel.
"I remember watching him standing in line with his mother, who was in her 90s," said Ann Louise Bardach, author of "Cuba Confidential" and the upcoming "Without Fidel." "He's just a gentle, appealing guy."
Lage's son, César Lage, is also considered a rising political star. Until recently, he was the president of Cuba's University Students' Federation, a prestigious post that Fidel Castro himself coveted but never achieved.
The younger Lage played a role in the recent controversy over videos posted on the Internet that showed university students complaining about travel and Internet restrictions during a government-sanctioned criticism session. He is believed to have persuaded one of the students to make a follow-up statement, saying he wanted to improve socialism, not end it.
Years before César Lage became president of the students' association, the post had been a springboard for P¿rez Roque. While head of the group, Pérez Roque impressed Fidel Castro enough that the Cuban leader later named him his chief of staff and personal aide. The young man evolved into a behind-the-scenes force, the gatekeeper to Fidel who was believed to have safeguarded the leader's personal papers and diaries.
Pérez Roque was named foreign minister in 1999 when Fidel Castro fired his then-foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, a 30-something moderate who wore his hair long and looked out of place among the "dinosauros" of Fidel's inner circle. Before being ousted for reportedly favoring reforms, Robaina had been considered a future presidential contender.
By contrast, Pérez Roque emerged immediately as one of the staunchest defenders of Fidel's policies. Echoing a common Cuban saying, Cuesta said he has been "more like the pope than pope" in terms of his loyalty to the Castro doctrine.
Among those best known beyond Cuba is Mariela Castro, a psychologist and Raúl's 45-year-old daughter.
With a flowing mane of brown hair, she is at ease in the spotlight and has traveled throughout the world, mostly to lobby for equal treatment of gay men, lesbians and transgender people. She has done the same, with some success, in socially conservative Cuba. She contributed to a Kinsey Institute encyclopedia of sexuality, and at Havana's annual book fair last week crowds swarmed "Marielita."
"She's got the most visibility of what I call the 'monarchical family,' " Cuesta said. "And she looks like she likes it."