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Castro Resigns as Cuba's President

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Julia E. Sweig
Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 3:00 PM

Julia Sweig,, author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution," was online Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. ET to take your questions about impact of Fidel Castro's resignation as Cuba's president on the U.S. and the world.

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The transcript follows.

Sweig is the Council on Foreign Relations' Director of Latin American Studies and the author of author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution."

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Julia E. Sweig: Good afternoon: Julia Sweig, signing in for this online chat about the Fidel Castro resignation.

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Chicago: The embargo and the ban on travel to Cuba are two black marks on this country's history -- flatly un-American and offensive. Will Castro's death in any way help get these silly and failed regulations rescinded? Thanks.

Julia E. Sweig: Well, as we know, he's not dead yet. So let's look at the likely consequences of today's resignation and assume that he may well be with us for the next several years. I believe that underneath the posturing of the presidential election campaign, there is a latent bipartisan consensus that recognizes that the current policy has failed. The politics of coming up with and implementing a rational policy will play out in the next few years. The demographic changes of the Cuban-American community, their voting patterns in 2008 and 2010, and their campaign finance leverage all will play a role. But the resignation, and ultimately Fidel Castro's death, represent an opportunity to bury the hatchet -- a chance I think many in this country are eager to embrace.

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Detroit: Has anyone bothered to calculate the cost to the U.S. through the past 48 years for keeping the hostility going against Castro? Another great Republican policy blunder, as they cultivated the anti-Castro element in Florida all these years. Another wonderful Nixon legacy, along with Cheney and Rove et al.

Julia E. Sweig: Surely in the billions.

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Fairfax, Va.: For all the political scientists and students out there this is a major change, but we still know it's only minor in scope. The real question remains -- what happens after Raul?

Julia E. Sweig: I wouldn't assume that the status quo will prevail under Raul Castro. He may be thought of as ruthless toward his internal enemies, especially during the insurgency and in the 1960s and 1970s, but today's Raul -- and the Raul of the '80s, '90s and this century -- is a pragmatic institutionalist. In the past two years especially, since well before Fidel's illness, he has been creating the political space for an internal debate about how to preserve the legacy of the revolution, strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist Party and address the bread-and-butter issues that are at the heart of quality of life and well-being of the country's majority. I think he is acutely aware that his legacy is tied not to what he did in the '60s or '70s but in his ability to find the mix of state and market and political discourse and opportunity that will give the young people in Cuba a stake in what their elders have built. That is why we are seeing the beginnings of a real debate about how to get the state out of the way while preserving its role in social welfare, safety nets, etc. It won't happen overnight but the clock starts ticking now.

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Washington: Two of the best examples of Cuba success were and are education and health care for all. If quality education for all at the university level is one of Castro's accomplishments, the people that will decide now about the future of their country are part of these successes and will take them into consideration. On the other hand, they are able to see that this region (excluding Cuba and Canada) has the most inequity in the world. Why would they want to change the economic model? To consume more and have less?

Julia E. Sweig: Because the current economic model has created much more inequality than is tolerated within the frame of reference that Cubans have grown up on, and because it doesn't deliver jobs, opportunities, and hopefulness about the future. So the trick is to figure out how to take advantage of the economic boost Cuba gets from Venezuela -- and now from a $1 billion line of credit from Brazil, as well as foreign investment and ultimately even the 1.6 million Cuban-Americans in the United States -- to protect the health/education legacies (and improve them, because they need improvement). They also have to inject a dose of market autonomy so that small business can flourish. And they have to do all of this without jeopardizing the party and the revolution's hold on power -- no easy task.

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Northwest Washington: As I look at the tenuous U.S. relationship with Venezuela I cannot help but compare it to Cuba. I have been fed this anti-Cuba propaganda all my life. Meeting folks from other countries and getting their feedback, it seems like our country has been very hypocritical toward Cuba, in that it sided with the elite power structure versus standing for the rights of people -- particularly the working class and below. I understand our anti-communism stance, but can our government not see these things, as this is the same basis for Iran in the '80s. It seems the policy is brewing toward Venezuela. Chavez is being painted as the next Castro.

Julia E. Sweig: Yes, the U.S. government tends to identify with the traditional elites in Latin America and globally. This has reinforced the rejection of American power and policies, no doubt. I actually wrote a whole book about it that came out last year, "Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century." Immodest flogging of my own book, I know.

Having said that, like Fidel, Chavez thrives on having the "other" to pick fights with. It helps him shore up domestic support as it did/does Fidel -- note that Raul does not do so nearly as much -- and the United States historically has been very tone deaf, overly sensitive in my view, responding to provocations when a firm embrace would have (in Fidel's case early on, e.g. 1959-1960, and in Chavez' case before the coup of 2002) helped neutralize the impulse to pick a fight with the American empire.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico: Do you consider the Castro illness a clever strategy to assure a smooth transition?

Julia E. Sweig: No. He got sick. And his strategy of managing his own succession unfolded with his illness. Y punto.

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Silver Spring, Md.: On the capitalism front, we can expect resorts, casinos and beautiful second-home/retirement communities to come to Cuba. Not today, not next year, but these things will happen this decade. My question is, who will benefit and who will decide? Will the powerful ex-pat and commercial development industry simply steamroll the Cubans, or will development be domestically owned and controlled?

Julia E. Sweig: Great questions. My thinking is that there are enough highly-trained nationalists -- economists, technocrats, analysts, etc. -- as well as serious political cadre within the party (and, importantly, within the Armed Forces) who see themselves as positioned to manage Cuba's opening to foreign capital, including Cuban-American capital. There is view -- fantasy in my eyes -- that somehow once the Castro brothers are gone the IMF will come in with a big restructuring package and that Cuba's successor regime will be so weak and broke that it will have no choice but to accept its dictates. This is the view that is embodied in the Bush administration's transition plans, more or less.

My view is that after nearly half a century if there is one country in Latin America that knows how to manage American power, in all of its dimensions, it is Cuba, and there is now a second and third generation of Cubans on the island who may well desire some version of state capitalism but will not give away the crown jewels to get it.

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Washington: You said the clock is ticking now that Raul is in power, but how long can it keep ticking -- meaning how far can he go with Fidel still alive and having a strong (if not decisive) opinion on practically every aspect of Cuban life?

Julia E. Sweig: I don't know, to be honest. I think Fidel being around -- writing his exhorting missives, his analyses of this and that major global issue -- helps Raul manage expectations, so that the pressure for radical change is contained. Having said that, in the past year and a half so much venting and complaining has been permitted deliberately that I can't imagine it's just about letting off steam. The resignation is meaningful, and even though it isn't a funeral we're witnessing, it does put some pressure on for Raul, Lage and, the others to put some meat on the bone of all of this reform talk.

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La Mirada, Calif.: As a white American male married into a large Cuban expatriate family for the past eight years, I would say my family is equally hurt by the hardcore Bush policies toward Cuba in the past seven years as by the Castro dictatorship. What little their Cuban relatives enjoyed was because of what their families were allowed to bring in from the U.S., and Bush stopped that. It seems to have created a vacuum that Chavez has exploited. It seems the prudent thing to do would be to relieve the restrictions on our end and hope the Cuban government responds in kind. What do you think, based on your travels to Cuba?

Julia E. Sweig: I fully agree with you, but don't mistake Chavez's economic assistance for political weight within Cuba. You know that Cubans are deeply nationalistic and do not like the idea -- though they tolerate it -- of anyone, whether the Spanish, the America, the Soviets or now the Venezuelans, having any special role calling the shots domestically. Where Chavez definitely has filled the vacuum is on the economic front: We cut off remittances, he primes the pump. We could undo the former in a stroke of a pen, and hopefully will very soon -- but not just to balance Chavez:. We should do it because its the right thing to do. This is an unnatural arrangement for Cubans and their families abroad, and unnatural for our two countries.

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Carrboro, N.C.: My impression is that the biggest obstacle to a more rational Cuba policy is the political strength of the Cuban exile community, and the fact that at least the leadership of this community is more interested in restoring pre-revolutionary property claims and in returning to positions of political power than in actually establishing a generally free democracy on the island. Do you see Castro's retirement leading the U.S. toward a policy focused on the welfare of the majority of Cubans, rather than on the particular goals of the exile community?

Julia E. Sweig: Yes, eventually I think it will -- eventually. And I also see, and this isn't so politically correct, that the Cuban-American community increasingly has the welfare of Cubans on the island more and more in mind, as opposed to going back and taking property and imposing some sort of Iraq-style de-Baathification model on the island. Unfortunately the Bush administration's transition plan is all about de-Baathification; U.S. policy as articulated in Helms-Burton also has that kind of purge vision embedded in it; and the hardliners in the U.S. Congress who are Cuban-American -- especially in the House -- also have a very hardened vision that includes, for some, taking power. Hard to imagine, but that view persists very strongly.

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Boston: What happens if Cuba does have free and open elections and elects another communist government? Is the U.S. embargo on Cuba a reaction to Castro, or communism? What does that say about American willingness to negotiate and trade with China?

Julia E. Sweig: I can't imagine Cuba holding the kind of election that the Bush administration would regard as democratic. Can't imagine Jimmy Carter monitoring some multiparty Organization of American States-supported election any time soon. Lets assume that some version of the Communist Party -- and no other political parties -- will remain the status quo for some time. Your question goes to the issue of why we trade with big powers, or tolerate the flagrant anti-democratic stripes of allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, while holding this infantile grudge against a tiny country with zero strategic significance. Answer? Because Cuba is a tiny country with zero strategic significance to the United States that happens to have more than 10 percent of its population living here -- a bloc that has become an enormously effective advocate for its views.

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Austin, Texas: To what degree have remittances really been cut off? Don't most Cuban-Americans with families on the island manage to send money one way or the other? (At the risk of stereotyping, my experience has been that Cubans are nothing if not resourceful and creative.)

Julia E. Sweig: The numbers have gone down pretty dramatically, at the risk of generalizing.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I always have thought the "Cuba" issue got more talk and respect than it deserved just because a bunch of exiles live in Florida, hate Castro and make sure to vote for the most anti-Castro party in a state that's a toss-up in general elections. While we may not normalize relations with Cuba (i.e. get rid of the embargo) do you think we could see in the next administration declare all Cuban landers in Florida illegal immigrants?

Julia E. Sweig: I doubt that will happen, but you're right that the Cuba issue gets vastly more attention than it deserves, and to the detriment of much more important countries in the region, such as Mexico or Brazil.

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Philadelphia: Do you see any shifts in Cuba's foreign policies resulting from a post-Castro government, especially in the desire of Cuba to seek allies among other countries in South and Central America?

Julia E. Sweig: Since about 1988 Cuba has rebuilt its ties throughout Latin America. Even with Central America, where the countries staunchly are allied with the United States, Cuba now has if not full diplomatic ties -- at least the beginnings of them -- with every one except Costa Rica if my memory serves. From Cuba's standpoint, diplomatically speaking, the Cold War ended before the wall even fell.

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Austin, Texas: Suppose you died and in your next life were to return as a poor person (say, at the 25th percentile in terms of income locally) in one of the Caribbean nations. (Let's exclude Puerto Rico and those islands that are still protectorates of European powers.) Which one would you choose? Where would Cuba be on your list?

Julia E. Sweig: Grenada.

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Carlisle, Pa.: Would now be a good time to lift the embargo?

Julia E. Sweig: Now is the time to lay the groundwork for precisely that, in my view, but it can't happen overnight for reasons related to politics and law. Helms-Burton has to be repealed, so Congress should start to put together the votes to make that happen. Likewise, without Congress, this or the next president could use the regulatory framework that exists to allow Cuban American family travel and people-to-people travel. And we should start talking to the Cuban government about a bunch of bilateral security issues that the Bush administration has left dangling in the wind: immigration, environmental issues related to oil drilling, human smuggling, drug trafficking, disaster relief, public health -- all issues the Cuban government has an interest in talking to the U.S. government about. Further, national security and homeland security should require us to talk to any country 90 miles away from our shores, whatever the ideology.

Now, do I think that lifting the embargo will bring democracy to Cuba? No. But it will help create some breathing space so that Cubans can have a discussion internally about what kind of future they want, without the tired (but plausible) refrains about the need for national unity to protect against the empire.

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Washington: Good afternoon. A technical question on Castro, who signs his name "Fidel Castro Ruz" -- what is the "Ruz" portion of the name?

Julia E. Sweig: His mother's maiden name.

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Miami: Is the U.S. willing to keep the status quo policy on Cuba simply because it not only is favorable politics for the current presidential candidate, but also keeps the flood gates of a mass exodus in check? If relations were to be normalized within the year, perhaps a quarter of all of Cuba would try to immigrate to the U.S.

Julia E. Sweig: Normalization is a word that to me has little meaning, don't you think? Just because the current status quo is unnatural doesn't mean we'll get to normal, e.g. like U.S.-Dominican relations, for example. And no, you can bet that even if that many people do want to leave the country, there is no possibility that the U.S. government would allow it, nor any possibility that the current Cuban government would see that as anything but a recipe to provoke a naval blockade against it. If the United States and Cuba start talking to one another again -- beyond the monthly meetings that currently take place at the Guantanamo gate -- managing the flow of people absolutely has to be at the center of those discussions. We have a bilateral immigration agreement that has worked pretty well for more than 10 years -- since 1994 -- but it needs attention in the context of broader security talks, or just for its own sake.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Our State Department states there will no be no changes on the embargo on Cuba, yet shouldn't we expect there to be changes on this? What will it take to bring about a lifting of the embargo, and about how long do you think it will take?

Julia E. Sweig: About five years to straighten it all out, in my view, if there is the political will in the U.S.

That's all the time I have for questions this afternoon. Thank you so much. This has been great.

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