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On-the-Record Media Conference Call: U.S.-Cuba Relations after Castro [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow and Director of Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
November 28, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations


GIDEON ROSE: Hi there, everybody. This is Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

And I’m delighted to be moderating this call today with Julia Sweig, who is the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow, and director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author, most recently, of an article forthcoming in the January-February ‘07 issue of Foreign Affairs called “Fidel’s Final Victory.” It’s a fascinating and interesting piece that hopefully will be the subject of a lot of discussion from you and others. So let’s get right to it.

For those who haven’t had a chance to mull the whole piece, let me just have Julia go over some of its major points and then we can get right to your questions and discussion.

Julia, you start by talking about the misconception, I guess you would describe it, in America—widespread conventional wisdom about what is going to happen in Cuba when Castro passes from the scene. Can you describe what you think people here assume will happen and why they think that?

JULIA E. SWEIG: Thanks, Gideon. Yes, and thanks for having me, and thanks everyone for calling in.

Up until the end of the July, sort of middle to the end of August of 2006, I think the conventional wisdom had been that the “big bang” theory of change would prevail in Cuba. That is that once Fidel is dead or out of the scene that there would be a very rapid clamor from the population for change, and that we would see very readily a transition—democratic, semi-democratic—nevertheless, a very quick change on the island unfolding.

That conventional wisdom has been defied in the last few months and for many, many reasons. But that’s piece A of it.

The second piece of the conventional wisdom is related, which is the assumption that the Castro regime has remained in power on the basis of repression, force and by using the external threat that the United States has always posed, to sort of gin up a nationalist narrative that has carried some public support along the way.

The major driver of U.S. policy, and of this conception of what’s happening on the island in Cuba, is twofold. One is domestic politics—a Cuban exile community that has been very, very active in shaping U.S. policy and clamoring for change. And the second is the experience of the collapse of the socialist bloc where the transitions there from communist regimes to—changed very quickly. Once the wall fell, the assumption was Cuba, having been part of that socialist bloc and a communist country itself, would undergo a similar and rapid change. And both of those two expectations have been wrong.

ROSE: Okay.

So what do—if the conventional wisdom of an East European or Eastern Bloc quick and total democratic transition or sudden, you know, (rupture ?) and so forth is not likely, what do you think will happen—or has happened and will continue to happen in months and years to come?

SWEIG: Well, I’ll go into that.

Let me just say what I should have said on the beginning of this call is that, of course, on December 2 nd there’s a very—and I suspect that we have people calling into this call today because on December—when Fidel got sick, he said, “Hey, I’m about to turn 80; let’s celebrate my birthday not in August, but on December 2 nd,” which is the 50 th anniversary of the landing of the Granma boat from Mexico into Cuba when—it’s sort of the traditional date that marks—one of the dates that marks the beginning of the insurgency on the island against Batista in the 1950s.

There will be a major military parade in Havana this Saturday. There has been much speculation about whether Fidel will make an appearance. And so we have lots of press going down to the region, the diplomatic community there watching very closely. And it’s, I think, a moment to sort of get a sense of, if Fidel shows up and in what capacity, or if he doesn’t, what does that mean?

Now we can get into that later, and you’ll probably be able to infer what I think about that. But the essential argument in this article that I make is that the domestic source—is that what the United States and the exile community has totally misread is that this is not a regime that relies on its—for its staying power on repression alone; that after 50 years it has set down roots; that the entitlement programs of health and education and the kind of international activism of the regime, both during the Cold War and subsequently, in the kind of humanitarian sense and also its cultural links and, just broadly, the way in which—the ways in which the regime outside of the repression apparatus has kept a consensus—mean that the cast of characters that have now inherited the reins of power—Raul, Felipe Perez Roque, Carlos Lage, Francisco Soberon and a couple of others—they really are functioning within institutions that still do have broad legitimacy—major problems, but broad legitimacy.

ROSE: So you expect continuity rather than change or evolution?

SWEIG: I expect continuity, but gradual reform within that.

The debate within Cuba right now—and when I say debate, of course, it’s very hard to penetrate because the press is controlled by the state, and it is a very closed society, for all of its connectedness internationally. But there is a debate taking place in universities, even in the press—especially within the party—within the military, really across the board about how Cuba can reform given the external pressures and threats that it senses and faces, those that are real, and given the need to sort of keep the consensus of a socialist anti-imperialist Cuba alive.

I mean that’s—the debate isn’t taking place outside of that frame, but the real issue is democratic participation and greater economic opportunity are demands palpably felt by those who have inherited the mantle from Fidel. And they have to address it faster, perhaps, than Fidel precisely because they’re not Fidel. They don’t have the charisma, the historic dominance that he’s had, and they have to start delivering on these bread-and-butter issues and that’s no state secret. Everybody’s talking about it.

ROSE: Okay. So what in this context should the United States do? You’re made czar of Cuba policy. What do you recommend?

SWEIG: Oh, my view is that we ought to take ourselves out of Cuba’s domestic politics. Although we have no formal diplomatic relations, the fact that for 47 years we have been progressively working in very different ways, but failing across the board, to get rid of the Castro regime suggests to me that in fact we’ve been part of the narrative that allows what debate that does take place internally to be as slow and as constrained as it is.

My view is that the economic sanctions have failed; that we ought to take ourselves out of the way, allow Cuban-Americans and Americans to travel there freely, allow investment, allow trade, allow commerce. Do all the things that in fact we were doing with the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s. While talking about democratic change, we also had commercial and travel and other ties with those regimes, as we did with Chile—another model that this administration looks at.

And the critical point here is that Cuba is 90 miles away and it’s a tiny country. And it has almost—many people in Cuba have relatives here. So the kind of ties that we once had are really much right under the surface. And it makes no sense to me that the United States would in fact take itself out of the game by isolating ourselves from events on the ground there as we have right now.

So my view is open it up, get rid of sanctions. And the argument that suggests that this would just reward Raul Castro can be addressed really readily. And that is, you know, if we see the island as just populated by two people, Raul and Fidel Castro, we can recognize that our policy hasn’t punished them at all. But what it does do in a variety of ways is it helps the leadership to keep the population deeply, deeply constrained in terms of its own future and opportunity.

There are aspects of U.S. policy today which are especially problematic. And although I have argued in this piece that I do expect continuity, and although it is true that Cubans are managing their security and the Americans are managing ours—that is in terms of the Straits of Florida—at the moment, when Fidel Castro does die, I do think there is a point of vulnerability where as, on other occasions, some in the Cuban exile community may see that moment of vulnerability and look to try to shake things up militarily between the two countries—as happened at the 1996 shoot down of the two Cessnas.

And I do think that the articulation by this administration of a policy which is regime change and which is essentially de-Ba’athification—that is, let’s purge the military and the Communist Party of the Fidelistas and the Raulistas before the United States will offer any assistance—is counterproductive beyond any measure as we’ve seen it in other parts of the world.

ROSE: Let’s talk just briefly, before throwing it open to questions, about the domestic political context of American policy. Will the recent congressional elections affect this policy at all in the sense that is this something on which Democrats and Republicans disagree? Or is it something on which, given the location, the domestic interest groups and the toss-up aspect, that both parties simply are playing off a not dissimilar page?

SWEIG: Well, it cuts both ways, and you frame the question really well.

In 2004, John Kerry closed the margin—got 14 or 15 percent more Cuban-American votes—took those votes away, I’m sorry, from George Bush by comparison to 2000, and that was a direct response to—it was a protest vote against the Bush administration’s decision to cut off Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island.

The Democratic and Republican—under the Republicans, the House of Representatives has now a bipartisan majority that has voted several times to lift pieces of sanctions, including the travel ban.

So on the one hand, you have several votes since 1999-2000 that show that there’s a new bipartisan consensus in the Congress toward moving toward engagement and lifting sanctions. But on the other hand, both parties absolutely see the state of Florida as critical. And although there are many, many other Latino votes to worry about who are—that are not Cuban-American—the politicians in the DNC and the RNC will be tempted to be enormously careful, even if other economic interests and other arguments are persuasive that we ought to open up, they’ll be careful not to go too rapidly, because the Cuban-American vote is critical.

ROSE: Okay.

With that, let’s throw it open to questions from our extensive and very interested audience. Who wants to start it off?

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.

And our first question today comes from Jonathan Beale from the BBC.

QUESTIONER: Hello. Thank you very much for that.

I’m just wondering, you mentioned about whether Castro appears or doesn’t appear. I mean, what do we read into that, do you think?

SWEIG: Well, in many ways it’s sort of beside the point. And I say that not to belittle the event or anything, but just to say that once Saturday has come and gone, in my view the dynamic is going to continue that we’ve seen unfold since August.

We’ll see him and we’ll see that he is frail and weak if he does appear. But if he doesn’t appear, we’ll also know that he is frail and weak. Now, I mean, he could have improved since October 18 th, the last time he was shown on camera, but you know, certainly if he doesn’t appear, the signal will be very strong not only that he is not well physically but this really is a done deal in the sense of the transfer of power is becoming more and more permanent.

If he does appear, however, it will be hard—it’s hard for me to imagine that he’s going to get up there and say, “I’m back; I’m better, and I’m taking back those six key sectors of the economy that I transferred temporarily.” I just don’t see that happening.

OPERATOR: Okay, thank you.

Our next question comes from Anthony Depalma from The New York Times.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Julia. Good morning.

SWEIG: Hi, how are you?

QUESTIONER: I’m fine. Thank you.

What do you make of the appointment of Ramiro Valdes to the regime there? And how firm is Raul’s hold on power? Is there a chance that there will be an internal struggle after Fidel is gone and that Raul will have to fight to keep power?

SWEIG: Of course there’s a chance that there will be an internal struggle, but I think in the near term, my sense from my trip just now there, Tony, was that there is a very clear sense that he is the guy at least to get the country through this interim transition. And by interim I don’t mean six months or a year; I mean a few years. And that he sees his legacy precisely as, you know, getting the country over the post-Fidel hump, if you will, and maybe that’s a three or five-year period.

But in the military and in the intelligence community—and more broadly, even among those very people that he has been responsible for repressing in the intellectual community—he’s seen as the one to do this job. And by this job, what I mean is begin to sort of create the momentum toward bread-and-butter issues of economic reform and job opportunity. I’m not saying democratic participation, but at least sort of governance and corruption and job and daily life issues.

Ramiro Valdes—I have to say, I was a little bit surprised to see that he was brought back and given that position. I know there’s speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two of them. He is one of the historicos. He’s been around from the very, very beginning. And to the extent that he’s under the tent and working with Raul Castro, that’s probably better from Raul’s point of view.

QUESTIONER: Okay. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Robert Collier from The San Francisco Chronicle.

QUESTIONER: Good morning.

My question is whether you think there might be a willingness on the part of the Cuban government to do any type of grand diplomatic bargain for a transition with the United States. That, of course, presupposes the unlikely willingness on the part of Washington to do any sort of diplomatic bargain.

But I’m wondering if you think the Cuban government might be willing to negotiate any sort of major grand diplomatic bargain?

SWEIG: Well, it’s a good question. And I think that from my perspective, I don’t see that they have an enormous incentive to do that.

From their perspective, they—and this goes back to Gideon’s question, too—I think they’re happy to wait for the new dynamic in our Congress to play itself out, where the legislation may get reintroduced, and the sort of anti-sanctions coalition that existed until 2001-2002 reassembles itself, and gradually you have legislation passing.

And then the theory is that if you have a democratic White House, at a minimum in two years, they would stop issuing a veto threat, which would then allow the legislation to actually become law. And that would have the effect of changing U.S. policy, rather than negotiating a grand bargain with this administration, which, you know, is viewed as not a reliable partner and not having an interest in doing that.

Plus, you know, the Cubans are enormously confident right now. They’ve got Venezuela. They’ve got a kind of newly enhanced profile in Latin America in the Nonaligned Movement. And I don’t think they have much incentive. And I think that they have gotten so accustomed to living without the potential benefits that they would get were ties between the two countries to be reopened that they’re not going to put a lot of political diplomatic capital into that basket.

Now having said that, there is a—the question has to be, well, what is it that we would ask them to do? And if the only thing we really care about—we, the United States government—is that they become a multipartied, democratic country, that’s not going to be something that we’re going to be able to negotiate. It may be desirable, but it’s not something I think the Cuban regime would ever sit in a room and negotiate. But on discrete sort of security cooperation issues, absolutely. It’s happened before and it even is still going on at a very minimal level.

On sort of cooperation and sort of soft-second tier issue, absolutely. But grand bargain, a la “we change if you change”—I think that’s not realistic to expect.

QUESTIONER: Can I follow up? Do you think that there is any real thinking in the Democratic Party in that direction, or is it status quo?

SWEIG: I think we have to get past the presidential election season, which is going to be a time when if in fact Fidel dies during our presidential election season, I think you’ll see every candidate in both parties grandstanding and demagoguing as much as possible, and calling for, you know, now is the time to push this regime for the democratic transition. We saw it a little bit in August and it’ll be very, very loud; and the clamor from the exile community very, very loud at that time.

I think that in the Democratic Party you’ve got a very strong view, which is even perhaps more widespread than within the Republican Party, that Democracy and human rights really do matter and really ought to be a centerpiece of American foreign policy—if not in the Middle East, where they’re so different than us and where we’ve been so wrong, at least in this hemisphere where we sort of hold the Latin Americans to a higher standard and expect them more to be like us.

I think you’ll see from the Democratic Party a lot of voices saying, you know, we’ve got to see democracy there, but on the other hand, many voices, also, in the Republican Party saying that we’ve got our own hands tied with respect to sanctions and we have to get rid of those to really see a more open society on the island.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question today comes from Carol Williams from The Los Angeles Times.

QUESTIONER: Okay, good. This is a good segue.

Julia, do you see the emergence of a critical mass of pressure on the United States government for change in policy toward Cuba?

I mean, we’ve seen in recent weeks exposes on the waste and misuse of aid to democracy building in Cuba. The dissidents have called for, you know, the liberalization of the travel and trade policies saying that the status quo is not helping them. There have even been, you know, editorial position changes at the newspapers in South Florida that have traditionally backed the embargo. Do you see all this mounting on the administration to try something different after all these years?

SWEIG: Hi, Carol. You know, Carol’s referring to a GAO report which just came out and said that of the 70-some-odd million dollars the United States has spent for, quote-unquote, “democracy promotion” and supporting dissidents,” almost all of it is distributed in no-bid contracts and almost none of it actually gets to the island.

You know, I—will it build into a critical mass? I think we’re seeing, you know, this coalition, if you will—and you’ve named a few of them and there are many other elements to it, some in the business community, in the agricultural community, the tourist industry—other sort of traditionally anti-embargo activists from the—from the left. They will start to recompose themselves, but I don’t think that they realistically see this administration as capable or interested in making much change. But having said that, there are, as critical as I am of this Free Commission for Assistance to Cuba (sic) bet I got that title wrong, but the Bush commission—and of this explicit policy that this administration has followed, it’s true that there are people inside who clearly understand that their hands are tied and are looking for alternatives that allow them to thread the domestic political needle, but also, you know, deal with a Cuba based in reality and not one based in a fantasy.

But I think the target, to conclude, of all of this clamoring will be Congress until there is a death, and that will spark an enormous amount of demands from other elements. And that’s when the Bush administration may well be in the position that they cannot just continue to walk a tightrope of having a commission and talking about democracy, but actually doing nothing.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mercedes Gallegos (sp) from ABC Spain.

QUESTIONER: Hello. You mentioned in your—in your story half a dozen people that are part of the transition, together with Raul Castro. I would like you to point out which are—who are these people and what’s going to be their role? Thank you.

SWEIG: Sure. Well, they’re just listed right here in my article. The first, and in no particular order, is Felipe Perez Roque. He’s the foreign minister. He was Fidel’s personal secretary and then was promoted to foreign minister. He along with the president of the Central Bank, Francisco Soberon, now are in charge of finances. Now, these six areas are—the handful of areas that Castro, over which he turned provisional power over, are just those that he himself was managing. So the fact that these six names are here doesn’t mean that other people are not important.

For example, Ricardo Alarcon, who’s the president of the National Assembly and manages the U.S. relationship, wasn’t listed by Fidel. Well, that’s because Fidel doesn’t have control in any case of the National Assembly; Alarcon does. Anyway, so you have Perez Roque and Soberon, who are managing the finances related to energy, education and health. You have Carlos Lage, who was very—known as sort of the economic czar and the mastermind of the reforms with Raul in the 1990s. He’s now in charge of the energy sector. And then you’ve got Jose Ramon Balaguer and Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, with Esteban Lazo, who are taking health and education. And as Tony (sp) raised, you know, you have Rarmiro Valdes doing communications and you have a number of other—you have an—so don’t get, don’t assume that these six people are the only ones that matter.

In July, before Fidel’s illness, they created or reintroduced something called the secretariat, which is a level, a party structure within the Communist Party, between the Politburo and the Communist Party, with nine people in it, most of whom, with one exception, are of this second and third generation of leader in Cuba. They’re in their 40s and 50s. And it’s—it’s part of the recentralization on the economic front and the reassertion of the importance of the Communist Party. And so there are a number of other people there who are important, in addition to these six.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Carlos Aguirre (sp), from Asahi Shimbun.

QUESTIONER: Yes, good morning, Julia. Thank you for having this—

SWEIG: Hi, Carlos.

QUESTIONER: I was wondering—I have a two-part question. The first part is what options does the Cuban government have in terms of economic policy? We’ve heard—I’ve heard from both sides of the argument that perhaps a Chinese model is what they’re looking at. Raul has also expressed interest in this.

And the second part is you talk about Venezuela in your paper and the relationship with Cuba, so I’m wondering how—and you also say that, you know, the relationship is not going to last forever. So how really important is Cuba—is Venezuela to Cuba?

SWEIG: All right. You know, I say that what they’re looking for is a model of reform with Cuban characteristics, which means that it’ll probably be—it could evolve into something which takes a little bit from China, a little bit from Vietnam, and has its own Cuban characteristics. That is, the real question on the table is how can we accelerate the pace of reform that is allowing small businesses to operate beyond just the cuenta propistas, the self-employed sector—small businesses operated by Cubans, which is now legal under the constitution of 1992, with foreign capital, maybe even Cuban-American capital. That was one idea floated a while ago. How do we look at all of the businesses and enterprises that are under state control and figure out which ones can be privatized without creating new social classes and thus new political interests?

Demographically, they have a very young population, but they also have an elderly population. They have all these highly educated kids that they’re turning out from the universities, but not enough jobs to plug them into. So that raises the question of how about more foreign investment? You’ve got this high-tech industry, you’ve got biotechnology, you’ve got potential for biofuels, plus you’ve got the sort of normal Caribbean industries, like tourism.

But there’s lots of room for growth in terms of foreign investment coming in, in infrastructure as well, so that’s a calculus that they’re going to have to make. And they’ve got the domestic issues to worry about, but they also have—and this is critical, and I think many of us overlook it—the external environment. And to them, that goes right into the question of U.S. policy. So if sanctions and rhetoric continue be very, very tough, according—from the Cuban perspective, that’s going to slow their ability to open up to private industry at home and foreign investment from abroad. So I think it’s going to—so the United States does make a difference and can play a role indirectly, simply by loosening up and allowing the pace of reform to accelerate, perhaps.

On the Venezuela question, I say that it’s not permanent because (chuckles) it isn’t permanent. I mean, Hugo Chavez will be, or he will likely be re-elected this weekend, but his oil wealth is really the key. And I think probably the government of Cuba is betting on that oil revenue to continue to come in, but also understands that it isn’t permanent, just as the relationship with the Soviets wasn’t permanent. So they will take advantage of the Venezuela largesse as long as they can, but it does not translate into political power for Venezuela within Cuba, and that’s a critically important point that I think is often missed.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from (inaudible) from the Deutsche Welle Radio.

QUESTIONER: Yes, good morning, Julia. Thank you for having me.

I would like to know what makes you so sure that the institutions in Cuba still do have and would have further legitimacy even after, say, a sudden death of Castro. Because, as we have seen in Eastern Europe, I mean, all the Western intelligence was very sure that the systems were pretty stable and would enjoy this further support, and then suddenly we saw almost the rippling up, especially in East Germany, overnight. So what makes you so sure?

And my second question would be, do you know of any major funds the U.S. is keeping aside in case, yeah, there would be a sudden change in Cuba? And, as we know from Eastern Europe, the experience shows that this change does cost a lot of money, especially if you want to keep the situation stable. Would you know there of any preparation from the U.S. side?

SWEIG: Well, I’ll take your second question first, and thanks for calling in.

(Chuckles.) That I know of, there’s not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that the Americans are sitting on. There are lots of legislative proposals that have been circulating through which talk about the kinds of money that might become available that would have to be legislated and appropriated. And you know the United States is not exactly in a terrific financial position right now, so although many Cuban-Americans in Congress and outside of Congress are planning to lobby the U.S. government and the multilateral institutions for huge injections of aid to be sent to a transition democratic government in Cuba, it’s hard for me to imagine a lot of multilateral and government assistance, especially U.S. bilateral assistance, coming through very rapidly. On the multilateral front that might be a bit of a difference.

There’s a proposal now from the Bush administration for $80 million to a transitional government, but I suspect, given the financial constraints and given the experience of Iraq and given this GAO report we talked about earlier, that it might be tough to come up with that money. On the other hand, it would be an easy political one-off for a Democrat or a Republican to vote on what in any case is a small amount of money for this supposed transition government.

Now, why am I so sure that—and in the unofficial department—sorry, just on this last money issue, Adrienne (sp), Cuban-Americans surely will be the most interested group in—I could say this in one way, helping to rebuild the country’s infrastructure after Castro is gone or after this current regime is gone. But they will be wanting to get official and multilateral assistance to do it with. It’s hard for me to imagine enormous sums of money coming in from private hands. Some, but not—but not the kind that would be needed.

Why am I so sure? Well, I guess because, having traveled there as much as I have over as many years and having gotten to know as many people and institutions as I have, I have become persuaded that, unlike Eastern Europe, the—the narrative of socialism and anti-imperialism and nationalism that is so crucial to explaining what happened in 1959 and the subsequent 50 years that I believe that as unhappy and discontented as people are within these institutions, that national ideology or narrative will, especially with the foreign threat 90 miles away that the United States poses, continue to lend coherence and consensus-building capacity to people in the regime.

It’s very different—the United States isn’t—I don’t know if you’ve read this article, but what I say is that unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, in Cuba the United States is not seen as the bellwether of freedom. It’s seen as the oppressor that keeps—that helps rationalize domestic repression. It’s seen as an imperial power, and that isn’t just from the perspective of the last 50 years. It’s from the perspective of the last 150 years. In that sense, the continuity of that narrative will continue no matter who is in power in Washington or Havana.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

SWEIG: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mike Williams from the Cox Newspaper.



QUESTIONER: How much power do you think Fidel is still exercising on a day-to-day basis? Is he doing anything at all, exercising any sort of, you know, veto power? And secondly, do you see after the Raul transition period, do you see a single figure emerging, or is it going to probably be a collective leadership for a long time to come?

SWEIG: I don’t know how much power Fidel is exercising. My sense was that he was pretty sick and that his recovery is very difficult and that he is somewhat plugged in, but that he really did have to turn over day-to-day decision-making to other people.

On the broad strategic questions that they have on their plate, I just don’t know, and I suspect that to the extent that he continues to linger—right? and not die, that lingering will delay those strategic decisions from getting made—but not entirely halt them, because there’s too much pent-up pressure for more space, too.

I’m sorry, what—oh, collective leadership.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, would one figure emerge?

SWEIG: No, I see that—I sort of—you could think about this as like an old-fashioned civilian military junta, right? It’s—I don’t think now, in the short term, one figure will emerge. Raul Castro is extremely important, but he does not have the inclination to be the kind of charismatic one-figure leader that Fidel was. He understands that he has to rely on other people, and it is a collective leadership and in many ways has been so, only with this enormous shadow of Fidel Castro over everything. And now that’s—you know, he’s clearly on the margins, in my view, and the collective leadership is going about its business, something they’ve been training and doing—training for for some time.

Now, there will be a new—I’m going to not know the exact title, but the constitution does stipulate that at a certain point in time a figurehead, a sort of president of the republic who would be the commander in chief of the armed forces too, if they continue Fidel’s role, but maybe just the president of the republic, will be nominated by the Council of State and voted upon by the National Assembly, which is a rubber-stamp institutions. I mean, we’re not going to see a split vote or anything there. But there will emerge one person, but that one person will not be the king. He will have a cabinet and run the government collectively.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Letta Tayler from Newsday.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Nice to talk to you again so soon.

SWEIG: Hi, Letta.


Question on the state of the dissident movement in Cuba. When Fidel’s illness and operation were announced, there were a lot of reports that the dissident movement was fragmented and disorganized. Is it your sense that a few months down the road that is still the case, or have their perceptions of what their role should or should not be shifted in any way?

SWEIG: I think it is fragmented and disorganized. I think it has been historically successfully penetrated by Cuban intelligence, which helps to explain that it’s fragmented and disorganized. It doesn’t have much of a profile domestically within the country, for obvious reasons. I will not attribute who said this, but one foreign Western diplomat with whom I spoke described it as an “armchair dissident movement.” Now, that means no disrespect; it’s just that it is enormously—there are very few avenues for organized—there are no avenues for organized opposition or dissidence qua dissidence on the island.

But here’s what is really critically important, and I know that it’s hard to get visas as journalists to go there, but the kinds of discussions that the dissidents are talking about in terms of economic reforms, liberalization, free press, open society, democratic participation, that’s along the lines of what you hear from Oswaldo Paya, for example. Those discussions are happening within the party and within party-authorized intellectual circles and think tanks. That is, there’s not a huge amount of space between what the official dissidents, dubbed so by outside powers, are talking about and what the regime critics who operate openly and function openly and with approval are talking about, in terms of what kind of reforms that country needs.

QUESTIONER: Interesting. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Kerry Sanders from NBC News.

OPERATOR: Hello? Ms. Sanders? Okay, we’ll move on to our next question.

Charlotte Mangan (sp) from Channel Thirteen, WNET.

QUESTIONER: Hello. How are you?

I was wondering if you could discuss the point of view of ordinary Cubans. Your article mentions that life is just continuing. Do you expect that to remain the case, including after Fidel’s death?

SWEIG: Well, I think it, Charlotte, I think it will continue after Fidel’s death. Ordinary Cubans spend an enormous amount of time just getting by. Life is not easy, and you have huge problems with just the basics of will the bus come, and is there a space on the bus when it comes? Transportation is extraordinarily degraded. They’ve finally gotten their energy infrastructure a little bit better together so that the blackouts, which are really hard to deal with, are much fewer and far between. It’s hard to make ends meet on these government salaries, and so people are constantly “resolviendo,” which, you know, which translates into just, you know, resolving, but, you know, just kind of figuring out how to take care of business. And it means that they’re not so productive in their real jobs. In their real jobs, since they don’t pay enough, they can’t give as much time to them and so they’re spending time in the black market, either working or just buying stuff to feed their kids. It’s a paradoxical situation because at the same time, some of the government institutions, as I write and see quite clearly, do function. So kids are going to school and they’re learning and they’re achieving and they are producing and their health indicators are still terrific. And by comparison to the 1990s right after the socialist bloc collapsed, things are much, much better.

For example, the book publishing houses in Havana now are publishing print runs of 10(,000), 20(,000), 30,000, which—I mean, I wish my own publisher would do—and every book gets purchased. So there’s more money getting spent on cultural activities. There’s more—there used to be only one television channel; now there are three. People are—life is just a little bit better than it was before.

When he goes, I think that there’s going to be expectations that a new era is upon them, but not a new era, sort of an about-face, but that maybe there’s a chance for Raul and the others to keep pushing on the doors that are already open by just a little bit, in terms of getting rid of some of the heavy centralization and state bureaucracy that can be so dehumanizing.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question today comes from Mr. David Lynch from USA Today.

QYes. Julia, you mentioned, or you touched on this earlier, but you mentioned it in your Foreign Affairs article that Cuba is sort of uniquely well positioned to take advantage of the global economy. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more, in the event that you could assume some sort of sensible U.S. policy after Castro goes, what’s the upside potential for Cuba in terms of participating in globalization? And second, how much pressure do you think there’ll be from various U.S. business interests for a more sensible U.S. policy to capitalize on that?

SWEIG: Well, I don’t want to overstate this in terms of numbers, because it’s, after all, a tiny country, and so if they’re bringing $300 million in revenue per year from pharmaceuticals, that sounds tiny, but by comparison to what it was 10 years ago, it’s a significant leap. And that’s in the context of having all kind of constraints, some of which are directly imposed on them in the pharmaceutical department, just as an example, by content requirements in terms of the embargo.

But the broader question is that they have been investing in human capital. And they have, as I mentioned in that article, just as an example, 10,000 students in their science and technology university; doctors, scientists, people in biotech, joint ventures with China and Malaysia and other countries, to produce vaccines. They’re exporting their drugs where they can. They have a highly trained professional class that I—and they have now software development that they’re spending money to—they believe that they’re going to be able to get into the sort of global software industry.

Now, I don’t have a way of measuring whether that’s true or not, but by comparison to other small, developing countries, they have huge capacity on the human capital front, and that sets them up to not just be, you know, a home to maquillas, where they’re going to have to compete at the low value-added level with China, but to compete at a much higher level. And sort of—I think of them as, you know, potentially moving into a Singapore direction. That’s not a great model on the democratic front, but it may be on the economic front.

The business community—because Cuba is a small island, 11 million people, you know, it’s a very specialized kind of business community. It’s a little bit of agriculture, it’s potentially a lot of tourism, and it’s probably niche biotech software and pharmaceuticals. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, before it became—there was one point in which they had an enormous amount of interest in sort of joint development of pharmaceuticals, and I think that that will continue. But again, they run into embargo issues.

So absent the embargo, you could see more activity also in the cultural sphere, but what the embargo does is act as a huge disincentive, because the market isn’t big enough for many large corporations to bother. So their strategy has been, well, we’ll wait. It’s an interesting market, some potential, but they’re not going to spend a lot of capital trying to change the policy, because it’s just too small to merit the political costs and the heavy lifting. I think that’s been the calculus until now.


Will cigars get better or worse?

SWEIG: (Laughs.) I don’t know. But probably worse, I suppose. You know, part of what makes those cigars, I’m told, so appealing is that they’re hand-rolled.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Pablo Bachelet from the Miami Herald.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Hi, Julia.

SWEIG: Hi, Pablo.

QUESTIONER: Well, most of my questions have actually been asked, but there’s one thing that I wanted to ask you about the information blockade, which seems to be sort of the centerpiece of the U.S. policy, trying to break this information blockade.

In your talks with Cubans and just your sense, I mean, is there such a thing as an information blockade? Are Cubans oblivious to what is happening in the world in some way? If this information blockade is to be broken with all the resources that the U.S. government is putting into TV Marti and such, do you think that will kind of help swing things in one way towards more democracy?

SWEIG: Well, the way that the United States is trying to break the information blockade has so far been unsuccessful. As you know, the TV Marti signal is blocked. Often, Radio Marti is successfully blocked as well. The United States is now going to put a balloon up in the sky and I think going to try to in fact violate international telecommunications law by putting the balloon over Cuban airspace to try to beam TV Marti down to the island. But the explicit, you know, not public—what my understanding of the strategy from the U.S. perspective is to just force the Cuban government to spend money in blocking the signal, not really to actually get information to the Cuban people.

The secret annex of the Bush commission report on Cuba, we’re told, is all about getting satellite telephones down to Cuba and satellite radios, which would help to break that information blockade. But I don’t see the United States as successfully doing that, and of course, it depends on who you talk to in Cuba.

There are sort of levels of access that people have to information. Some people who are sort of officially sanctioned—even many, many very serious regime critics, though, that work inside of the regime have total access to the Internet. Some people—in some case, like China, there are sites that are blocked. You know, the Cuban government spends time—a lot of time—on blocking information.

But again, it’s a small country. Many people have relatives here, and so you don’t get the sense that Cubans are isolated at all from what’s happening in the world around them. They may be exposed to sort of a distorted, official view of it, but they seem to be well plugged in from my perspective, and not because the United States is penetrating those barriers.

QUESTIONER: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Veronica Sardon from the German wire service.

QUESTIONER: Hello. My question referred to the value of this transition period that Fidel, that the Cuban regime has got. You mentioned the moment when Fidel actually dies, the moment of vulnerability for the regime—to what extent do you think the fact that Fidel didn’t just die but got ill has helped the regime’s chances of survival as is?

SWEIG: Well, what I meant by vulnerability is not that I think that when he actually dies there’s going to be mass eruptions in the street and a sort of Ceausescu moment with a clamor for change and regime figures hanging by light posts. No, no, no. The vulnerability will come from the clamor outside of Cuba, specifically from some of the—this is not the majority of the Cuban-American community, but there are some within the Cuban exile community who very much would see it as the moment to strike, to take advantage. Because they misunderstand why the regime stays in power they will see his passing as the moment when the United States government or they themselves should try to penetrate the island and provoke some sort of disturbance, which would have the effect of potentially drawing the United States government and the Cuban government into conflict. That’s the kind of vulnerability I think the two countries face at the moment that he dies.

Yes, I think it helped enormously that he got sick and didn’t die quickly, because it allowed him to orchestrate the transition in many ways. And it sort of gave outsiders a practice run and an opportunity to see what might happen or what could expect in general, broad brushstrokes—what’s to be expected when he actually does die. So, it was an opportunity that was certainly not planned but definitely fortuitous.

QUESTIONER: And a second, very brief question—Fidel has a personality—obviously, I mean, has intrinsic value. Do you think Cuba stands to lose or how much do you think Cuba stands to lose with the absence of Fidel internationally and economically? I mean, does it have any economic clout without Fidel?

SWEIG: Well, I think, you know, internationally, you raise a really good point that Cuba is—the romance and the excitement and the iconic aspect of his character are all about Fidel Castro and Che Guevara but less about—and about the Cuban Revolution—but Fidel’s personality absolutely dominates in, I think, the international mind. And so, it’s possible that Cuba will—you know, it’s the chair of the Nonaligned Movement right now. But I think that there will be some diminution, if you will, of the kind of spectacular, oversized, global presence that Cuba has had, which is one reason why the kind of public diplomacy that they do do is so important. It’s all the humanitarian doctors, nurses, that kind of thing, and that will continue; that won’t stop. And that will continue to sort of be their own version of soft power.

On the economic front, you know, Fidel Castro really does not have any interest in things like growth—economic growth—or GDP or competition or all of those things. You know, the motors of capitalist economy, to him, and the motors and the measures are completely anathema. And so his absence, actually, I do think, is an opportunity, if all the stars align, vis-a-vis the United States as well, for some economic space to emerge there.

QUESTIONER: Right, thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tom Gjelten from the National Public Radio.


SWEIG: Hi, Tom. When’s your book coming out?

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) That’s a nasty question.

SWEIG: Oh no, I’m excited.

QUESTIONER: It’ll come out soon.

SWEIG: Good.

QUESTIONER: I’d like to push you just a little bit in the way some others have, and that’s about your level of confidence in some of the predictions that you make based on what we’ve seen in Cuba just in the last four months since Fidel’s illness was announced. And my concern is whether you and we might be jumping to conclusions given that Fidel in fact is still alive and given how cautious Cuban officials have been over the years to express any kind of thought that they perceive as being inconsistent with Fidel’s own thinking on any key issue. I mean, there is, among some of them, I’m sure, some uncertainty about whether Fidel in fact might recover completely and come back to power. And given that, might it be too soon to draw too many conclusions about where Cuba is headed?

I was in Cuba for the Nonaligned Movement. And one of the things that struck me is when Carlos Lage and Jose Antonio Rodriguez, the economics minister, gave press conferences and speeches, they were extraordinarily cautious about not suggesting any kind of reforming in the offing. And, you know, I have to wonder whether it’s because Fidel is still alive, and we won’t really see what’s going to happen until he actually is dead.

SWEIG: Tom, I think you’re right that he needs to actually die for this to really emerge in a palpable, tangible way. And by this, I mean what I’m arguing is, you know, the path toward some sort of more, you know, material reforms. Why am I so confident, though? I don’t know. I guess it’s from the private conversations I had with senior officials, too, and also from trying to just do a little—you know, just sitting down and talking with people out of the government who have insights into what needs to happen. And even reading the—you know, I don’t know if you sat down and read the speeches—they’re pretty arduous, but they’re not as long as Fidel’s—that Raul has been giving over the last six or eight months. And then talking to some of those people who were involved in the Juventud Rebelde expose about corruption, some of the economists who are doing that study on, quote-unquote, “socialist property.” My sense from them is that this is just around the corner. That it’s true that Fidel has to really not be around in order for it to happen, that that helps explain what a low profile Raul himself has had.

But, I mean, it’s my very educated belief—and I say that—I don’t want to sound immodest—that they’re going to have to make some of these changes. It will be slow, but that the debates are already under way, and that when those debates are under way, that’s a pretty good sign that if they’re already happening while Fidel is still alive, that we can expect them to continue when he’s gone.

Does that answer your question?

QUESTIONER: Yes, it does. It does, Julia.

SWEIG: I mean, I don’t know if it’s persuasive, but that’s my answer.

ROSE: On that note, I think we’re going to have to wrap this up, because one of the council’s hallowed traditions is to end events on time. We thank you all very much for your participation. Sorry if there’s any questions we didn’t get to. We had a good discussion going. Thank you, all.

Thank you, Julia.

SWEIG: Thanks, Gideon.

ROSE: And we look forward to future discussions.

SWEIG: Thanks, everyone.








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