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In Cuba, evolution is slow

Posted on Sun, May. 13, 2007

In Cuba, evolution is slow

Decades of angst and longing turned to jubilation on Miami's streets
last summer as the startling news spread that Cuban leader Fidel Castro
had undergone emergency surgery for a secret ailment and handed over
power to his brother Raúl.

Now, almost a year later, exiles' elation on that July 31 has been
transformed into more doubts, more second-guessing, confusion and

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits now realize that what looked
like a watershed moment only ushered in a new phase of uncertainty. It's
unclear whether change is coming to Cuba's government soon or whether
Cuba will remain the hemisphere's communist holdout.

And yet, changes — often nuanced and filled with contradictions — are
unfolding as key players from Cuba to Miami to Caracas and Madrid jockey
for position to influence the island's future.

In Beijing, Moscow and European and Latin American capitals, officials
are scrambling to cut deals with Havana, as Caracas props up the
island's economy with oil.

In Washington, Castro's illness has launched a series of new debates and
divisions over trade, travel and U.S. government pro-democracy
broadcasts to Cuba.

In Havana, Raúl Castro has ordered a series of studies on the socialist
economy, likely with a view to changing it. He has stopped short of
delivering. Not while Fidel lives, Cuba experts like former CIA analyst
Brian Latell say. So Cubans keep waiting, while their government steps
up its propaganda proclaiming that a U.S. invasion of the island is

Maite, a retired writer in her 50s who lives in Havana, said Cubans
reacted to Fidel's illness in one of three ways: “Those who were
ecstatic, those who were indifferent and those who were crying from
sheer panic.''

Nowhere in the United States has the impact of Cuba's power plays been
felt more than in South Florida, a region shaped in large part by
exiles' hopes and trepidations. The exile community has spent 48 years
trying to make sense of the Cuba puzzle.

For the past two months, a dozen reporters, photographers and
videographers in joint projects of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald
spread through the hemisphere to document signs of Cuba's slow but
steady evolution — a story that last year looked as if it could unfold

To understand South Florida's conflicted mood, one must carefully
juxtapose the frustrations of aging exiles with a younger generation's
keen interest in the future of an island they've never seen. Or peel
away at layers of misunderstandings with racial undertones that have
many exiles wondering why those on the island have yet to rise up — and
some in Cuba fearing that an exile-inspired invasion is coming.


Older exiles have always tried to laugh at their predicament, finding
solace in comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes' take on Fidel Castro. But
for the first time in his four-plus decades in exile, Alvarez Guedes,
79, has cut Cuban politics from his usually biting routines.

''It's a very sad situation,'' he said. “I don't see any big changes
coming in Cuba anytime soon — maybe in another 50 years.''

Esther Aulet's skip in her step has vanished over the course of this year.

''All my hope of seeing a free Cuba is gone now,'' Aulet, 74, said
recently outside La Carreta restaurant in Westchester, where hundreds
gathered last summer to cheer the news that the most hated man in South
Florida appeared to be one step from the grave.

Alberto Castro, 45, is among those so deeply marked by the Cuban
government that he says he long ago abandoned hope. The Miami Beach
resident was born in a prison hospital near La Cabaña, where, he says,
the government sent his parents for trying to escape the island. He's
not keeping a death watch.

''I don't care about Castro anymore — he can die today, for all I
care,'' said the American Airlines flight attendant and artist, who
draws the likenesses of 19th century Cuban independence patriots on
surfboards. His best work features José Martí and Antonio Maceo.

Fifty-five years ago, Castro's father, also named Alberto, became a
student activist set on overthrowing Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship.
Alberto Castro eventually joined Fidel Castro (no relation) as one of
his guerrilla leaders.

When he disagreed with Fidel Castro's turn toward communism, Alberto
Castro took up another fight — this time against Fidel — and spent 17
years in prison. He is baffled about why Cubans today don't revolt.

''I don't understand how they don't reject the system but instead have
surrendered to it and completely embrace it,'' Castro, 78, said.

South Florida's older exiles, carrying the pain of having had their
lives derailed by Castro's revolution, have passed along their life
lessons to their children and grandchildren. That's why so many fresh
young faces filled the crowds of those celebrating in pockets of
Miami-Dade County last summer — on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, in
Westchester and in Hialeah.

Many Americans outside South Florida, not understanding the dynamics of
a half century in exile, looked aghast at the TV scenes of street
celebrations that wished death on a dictator.


''I would not criticize those Cubans on the street. I think it's a
testament to the diversity of our community that there were so many
young people along with the older Cubans on the street,'' said Diane
Cabrera, 24, spokeswoman for Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a
network of young Cuban Americans attempting to establish ties with young

Her group didn't go to celebrations — they held a vigil on the Miami
Beach shoreline, praying for those on the island.

''Cubans did not get to decide who would govern their country,'' she
said. “It's clear the Castro brothers . . . want power at any cost.''

Rolando Llanes, 46, a Cuban-born architect, says the Miami crowds'
''banging of pots and pans and horn-blowing did not speak to me,'' yet
he understands why younger Cuban Americans partied.

''I told my parents it was a tribute to Cuban exiles like them,'' Llanes
said. 'I told them: `You guys have done such a good job as caretakers of
our Cuban heritage and pride that it's been passed on and absorbed by
these kids, who consider themselves Cuban exiles even though they were
born here.' ''

Joe Garcia, 43, former executive director of the Cuban American National
Foundation and now president of the Democratic Party of Miami-Dade, says
optimism is needed now more than ever: “There are people 90 miles from
here [in Cuba] who need us, so we can give them a long-term reality.''

For many exiles and younger Cuban Americans, it has become evident that
even after Castro, 80, dies, his government's grip will likely linger.
Many had expected a nationwide show of civil disobedience — just as
repressed Cubans had done against Spanish rule, the U.S. occupation
after the Spanish-American War and corrupt presidents before Castro's

Such comparisons ignore the Castro government's control of all aspects
of people's lives, said Jaime Suchlicki, 67, director of the University
of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

''The Cuban people are fearful, intimidated, they can't freely
communicate, so they can't form an organized opposition,'' Suchlicki said.

On the surface, Castro's ceding of power has had no immediate
consequence — the Caribbean's Berlin Wall remains fractured but
standing. Young Cubans disenchanted with their daily struggles under
Cuba's communist system have not taken to the streets as they did in
1994, taking the Castros by surprise during the demise of the Soviet
Union, which sent Cuba's economy into a tailspin and led to a rafter crisis.

Exiles' hopes of a Cuban dissident or secretly disgruntled Cuban
official staring down the charisma-impaired Raúl and his military forces
have evaporated.

''It seems like everyone is taking part in a conspiracy of silence,''
said Jose ''Pepe'' Hernandez, 70, director of the Cuban American
National Foundation.

Miami Dade College sociologist Juan Clark,68, who studies the psyche of
Cubans since the 1959 revolution, thinks those on the island are
reacting to almost a half century of government propaganda.

Cubans have grown weary, he said, of keeping “a rebellious attitude
burning inside.''

Added Diego Suarez, 80, director of the conservative Cuban Liberty
Council: “The Cuban people are living in denial, wearing a mask. The
repression has increased, as we have learned from Cuba's opposition


The Cuban government has also spent decades highlighting racial tensions
in the United States and ignoring civil-rights victories in an attempt
to divide predominantly white exiles from the mostly Afro-Cuban
population on the island.

In Cuba, many blacks told The Miami Herald they fear that white exiles
will return to take back property that once belonged to them.

Ramón Colas, 45, a former independent librarian and dissident who left
Cuba in 2001 and now runs a Cuba race-relations project in Mississippi,
says that Castro has not faced Cuba's legacy of racism.

The Afro Cuban points to the overwhelmingly white generals in Cuba's
armed forces, and notes that after almost a half century in power,
Castro has had only two prominent blacks in any positions of authority
– Commander Juan Almeida, a hero of Castro's revolution, and Esteban
Lazo Hernández, whom Castro tapped last summer as part of a two-man team
to oversee education under Raúl's watch. And those two men are perceived
by many Cubans as figureheads, Colas said.

''No black has held a key position, not even leading a [military]
mission overseas,'' Colas said.

By contrast, Colas points to Cuba's war of independence in 1895, “when
many leaders were black. This never happened in this revolution. Next to
José Martí was a black, Antonio Maceo. Fidel has no black man at his side.''

Many Cuba-watchers acknowledge that change on the island is almost
certain to come slowly — even without Castro.

''Now, there is a growing realization that the succession of power has
taken place — and that's it,'' Suchlicki said.

Carlos Saladrigas, 58, entrepreneur and director of the Cuba Studies
Group, agrees.

''Lamentably, I don't believe that the rabies ends after you kill the
dog,'' he said, referring to Castro's 48-year rule of Cuba. “To a large
measure, the regime is institutionalized. In recent months, we've seen
that a perfectly executed de facto succession has taken place.''

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, 52, maintains that Raúl's succession is
more an illusion than a reality.

'Those who believe that there has been a `succession' of power in Cuba
are mistaken,'' Díaz-Balart said. He added that Raúl will not be able to
maintain power in Cuba for long once Fidel dies, just as the
dictatorships of Spain's Francisco Franco and the Dominican Republic's
Rafael Trujillo ended after their deaths.

“Like in those cases, the gangster regime of Fidel Castro will not be
able to be maintained for long once its gangster-in-chief and founder,
Fidel Castro, is gone.''

Huber Matos, 88, once a Castro revolutionary commander, also believes
the political outcome would have been different had Castro died last
summer because an uprising could have taken root. Matos, whose
ideological falling out with Castro cost him 25 years in a Cuban prison,
said the island is in political limbo now.

“Fidel is not running the country, but he's not letting anyone else run
it either.''

Foretelling, perhaps, the conflicting emotions of today was a tune by
the late salsa queen Celia Cruz that energized the crowds as Miami
Cubans young and old danced in the streets last summer amid cheers of
Cuba si, Castro no!

Its title: Ríe y Llora — laugh and cry.
The Miami Herald has withheld the surnames of the people interviewed in
Cuba and the names of the team that reported from there, because they
lacked the Cuban visa required for journalists to work on the island.
Translator Renato Perez contributed to this


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