Castro Temporarily Transfers Power

Brian Latell
Author/University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies/Senior Associate, Americas Program, CSIS
Wednesday, August 2, 2006; 11:00 AM

Brian Latell , author of " After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader ," will be online Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul , and what the long-time leader's failing health could mean for Cuba. Castro, who is almost 80 years old, has been in power for more than four decades. Exiles have celebrated news of his ailing health, but it is unknown how this temporary shift in power will impact the country's political landscape.

Latell is also a senior research associate at the University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and senior associate in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The transcript follows.


Miami, Fla. Native: I'm a third generation Miamian and have always heard that Raul Castro was more ruthless than Fidel. I know Raul runs the military and is the "enforcer," but, other than that, is there any truth to the widely held belief that he is characteristically more oppressive?

Brian Latell: Raul should actually be considered as more complex than Fidel. Raul certainly has a long record of brutality and association with the harshest policies the Cuban Revolution has pursued, especially during its first few decades in power. In the beginning he was probably more radical than Fidel. But since the end of the USSR the brothers seems to have reversed roles. Fidel is now the more intransigent, dogmatic, and ideologically fixed. Raul is now more pragmatic.


Miami: Last month the Castro government approved seven new representatives for the 12-member Secretariat of the Cuban Communist Party. This change seems to highlight the importance of the so-called third revolutionary generation (40-50 years old) at the expense of the fourth generation (30-40 years old).

This recent announcement suggests several questions. First, what role would the secretariat have in post-Fidel Cuba? Second, is there any reason why the apparently more radical fourth generation seems to have lost some influence? Finally, are you familiar with the other members of the Secretariat, and do you have any idea whether the group represents a form of continuity or instead possible reform? (The other ten members are Jose Ramn Machado Ventura, Esteban Lazo Hernandez, Jorge Luis Sierra Cruz, Abelardo Alvarez Gil, Maria del Carmen Concepcion Gonzalez, Mercedes Lopez Acea, Lina Pedraza Rodriguez, Victor Gaute Lopez, Roberto Lopez Hernandez, and Fernando Remrez de Estenoz Barciela.)

Thank you.

Brian Latell: Inevitably, the new (actually, reconstituted) Party Secretariat will be dominated by Raul, Machado Ventura, and other raulistas....not by a younger generation.


Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Why wouldn't Raul Castro come out on television at this time to reassure the population and to reinforce his own power?

Brian Latell: Very interesting question. Over the years he has generally shied from public performances. He is not a good public speaker, and knows it. He lacks Fidel's charismatic qualities and does not like to be seen as inferior in this regard. Perhaps these sensitivities are especially acute now that he is in the process of taking over. He may also be very busy securing his flanks, meeting with many top officials, etc. But you are right: he will need to come out into public view soon, and be both reassuring and convincing in his new role!


Washington, D.C.: Which leader's psychological profile was more difficult for you to build--Raul Castro's or Aristide's? Do you think the current analysis on Ra¿l Castro by the CIA under this current administration differs greatly from yours?

Brian Latell: I really have no idea how the CIA assesses Raul today. I left there in 1998. Your question is well informed, except for one detail: I did not conceive or draft the Aristide appraisal. Others in the intelligence community, with full professional qualifications, did that. I was the National Intelligence Officer for Latin America and presided over the production of an national estimate and then presented it to senior govt officials and members of Congress

But all that said: Raul is vastly more complicated personally and psychologically than Aristide. My book gets into all the reasons why!


Arlington, Va.: Would you please give a brief historical overview of the conditions that lead to the Cuban Revolution? It is my understanding that the Batista Regime was very corrupt and that organized crime families from the U.S. used the island to launder money, etc. How was the Cuban population stratified economically - no middle class, etc.? Thank you.

Brian Latell: Batista regime was grotesquely corrupt...and brutal and violent. But on balance it allowed greater freedoms to most Cubans than the current regime. Fidel brilliantly mobilized a national opposition and military movement that overthrew the dictatorship, but he did so always promising to restore elections and run the country democratically..


Washington, D.C.: Good morning. Although it doesn't seem like we know much about him, I have read that Raul is even more authoritarian than Fidel Castro. What could this mean if Castro dies? Is the celebration in Miami premature? Raul is not that much younger, so it seems that there will be major change either way...

Brian Latell: Be sure to see my long article likely to appear on Sunday in the Post Outlook section. Raul may very well implement significant internal economic reforms....and may even want to have better relations with the US. I am persuaded that good evidence indicates both.


Arlington, Va.: I've read several analysts' take on the situation and some say that this is just a "test run" of a transition to power. It seems to me that if this had been planned, Raul would have been more prepared to make a public appearance shortly after such an announcement. What is your take on this?

Brian Latell: It could turn out that way. But I have believed for some months that Fidel's health was more and more precarious, mental and physical. The Parkinson's is probably just one among his serious afflictions. Raul has been steadily increasing his leading role throughout the governing apparatus. In After Fidel, pub last year, I even stated that he was already acting as a sort of regent in some policy areas. That accelerated in recent months, even before Fidel's surgery. The early June Cercania de Raul article in Granma was a key turning point in my view.


Anonymous: Do you really think Cubans will allow a pro-American puppet state government to return to Cuba?

Brian Latell: No one here or there wants that... at least no one with any understanding of Cuba and its history.


Washington, D.C.: What policy changes, if any, do you see coming from a Raul-led government in terms of land reforms or loosening of stifling controls over the economy. How do you think the US should respond to Cuba post-Fidel?

Brian Latell: I believe that once he has consolidated power and feels he has a degree of popular support, that Raul will begin cautiously and gradually implementing econ reforms. The goal would be to liberalize and decentralize the allow more individual initiative and private entrepreneurship...maybe later, looser rules about foreign investment. i.e., the "China model." (But little or no political opening)


Dunn Loring, Va.: Speaking of health, why does a baby boy born in Cuba today, have a longer life expectancy than a child born in the U.S.? That's according to the CIA World Factbook--says a lot for a health system that provides for everyone, doesn't it?

Brian Latell: The health system in Cuba historically provided nearly all of the populace with sound, basic care. The education system has as well. But since the end of Soviet subsidies many shortages and deficiencies have undermined health care. It is no longer what it used to be.


Falls Church, Va.: Why is Communist Cuba considered an "evil empire", while Communist China is considered a valued, crucial economic power? Seems to me that the difference is not in the regimes, both of which are repressive, but in our trade policies, which encourage investment in China, but embargo Cuba.

Brian Latell: Keep in mind that US relations with Cuba are more complex than most realize. We have the largest diplomatic mission in Havana. Since 2000 we have engaged in substantial ag trade...I believe we are now their 5th largest trading partner, and are perhaps first in ag trade. Billions of $$ in remittances from US families buttress the economy. Between 20,000 and maybe 50,000 Cubans leave every year and come to the US. The relationship is actually very complicated...and is bound to get better.


San Francisco, Calif.: Do you think Castro's death would strengthen or weaken support for leftist leaders in Latin America today (for example, in Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia)?

Brian Latell: The support for the new populist left in the region I believe has been diminishing in recent months...some argue that it peaked last year. Witness the election results in Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, and Mexico. Evo Morales may not turn out to be as revolutionary as many have insisted. If so, Chavez will be pretty isolated after Fidel departs.


Boston, Mass.: Much is being made of the fact that Fidel has transferred power. There's been virtually no mention of the fact that the faces of those in Little Havana are not not the faces of the majority of those on the island. Why is that? Do those in Miami expect for things to go back to the way things were in 1959 -- when they were at the top of a plantation system? I've seen many pictures of Little Havana. I've not seen any discussion of what it means to those in that neighborhood on a practical day to day level, what Fidel's death will mean.

Brian Latell: I've lived in Miami the last 6 months and interact daily with Cubans and Cuban Americans of many persuasions and professions. I urge you to avoid generalizations about this important American community. It is no longer monolithic. There are groups and institutions that represent nearly the entire spectrum of opinion, as almost anywhere else in this country. Cuban Americans belong to both of our political parties. Two are senators: one a Dem and one a Rep. A large city here in So Fla has been run politically by Democrats for a few decades.


Washington, D.C.: I know this is a very tough question, but what are the chances that democracy returns to Cuba when Castro finally dies? Is there enough of an underground movement there to make a difference? Would the U.S. play a role in any of it? Thanks.

Brian Latell: Democracy, free markets, personal freedoms will all inevitably reign in Cuba. The chances will substantially improve once Fidel is no longer able to call the shots, and that may have already happened. It is just possible too that Raul will pave the way for a political transition after his interregnum.


Alexandria, Va. : My question is why do so few Americans know the truth about Cuba and why Castro has retained power for so long? Cuba was a haven for the cosa nostra in the '40s and '50s before Castro. They were emulated by many young revolutionaries (myself among them) in the '60s and '70s because they rejected soviet-style communism in lieu of a peoples revolution. While they may not have achieved all their goals, the fact is that the vast majority of Cubans are educated and have their basic needs taken care of. They have survived the post-soviet collapse as well, much to the dismay of Cuban reactionaries and the U.S. government. When will the U.S. recognize that WE caused them to go the way they went, as well as cause much of the problems in the world by our support of totalitarian regimes and power-plays around the globe?

Brian Latell: I do not agree that the US caused Castro to take Cuba in the directions he has. I argue this in After Fidel, from both my government and academic experiences. I hope you will read the chapter about the Ford-Kissinger era negotiations with Castro to normalize relations. I was involved in them... and for me it was a profound turning point in the way I thought about Fidel.


Dhaka Bangladesh: Fidel has held the Cubans together with his Philosophy and Charisma which no other leader could carry on for such a long time except for Mao Tse Tung. Can the new leadership keep Cubans together and Cuba defend her from USA invading?

Brian Latell: The Castro government has also maintained itself in power for nearly 48 years through brutal repression, denial of most basic political freedoms,and Fidel's general insistence on his own infallibility. One dramatic step forward that he, or his successors, could take to demonstrate their good will would be to allow free libraries with few or no restrictions on the books that Cubans could read. There must be very few other countries in the world where that is not possible.


Somerville, Mass.: In light of the long chain of negative consequences from past U.S. interventions in Cuba's internal affairs, from over a century ago to current policy to dictate the course of coming changes in Cuba, what can be done here and now to prevent another disastrous turn, and to help Cubans in Cuba control their own future?

Brian Latell: We must be resolved in this country to avoid any unilateral interventions in Cuban internal affairs. We should also be prepared to assist a future government to build and consolidate democracy.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Why the big celebration in Miami? Does everyone there think that when Fidel leaves, things will dramatically improve?

Brian Latell: Well, this is a large city and the demonstrators have probably numbered in the hundreds, perhaps low thousands, judging by what I have seen here on TV. But in fact it is very likely that once Fidel is no longer fully in charge, many of his counterproductive policies will be changed or abandoned. So yes, major change is imminent.


Orlando, Fla.: While in Havana a couple of years ago, a young lady said that Cuba's curse was not Fidel or the Revolution, but rather its close proximity to the United States. If we see the triumph of the Revolution as a slap in the face to capitalism, and believing that capitalism is a better system, why haven't we recovered from the triumph of the Revolution?

Brian Latell: You quote a Cuban variant of an old saying about Mexico: too far from god and too close to the US. The US, ten presidents now, have had to deal not only with the triumphs or successes of Castro's Revolution,...but also with its many failures. That, for example, is why we have received so many Cubans unable to live under his system, and the flow continues large and unabated. You and other writers today in this exchange have raised very complicated issues. There are no easy answers. Unfortunately too, the dialogue in the US about Cuba has been long been monopolized by the extremes.

I need to log out now, after an hour and a half of this enjoyable discussion. My final thought is that now is the time for all of us interested in Cuba to be thinking about ways we can work together constructively.

Thank you very much.


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