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Latell: A Post-Fidel Cuba Likely to Experiment with Economic Reforms

Interviewee: Brian Latell
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 11, 2006

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Brian Latell, who for many years was the CIA’s top Cuban and Latin American analyst, says Fidel Castro, who has recently undergone serious surgery and lost forty pounds, may be suffering from cancer. He says that if eighty-year-old Fidel is forced to give up power to his younger brother Raul, who is seventy-five, there may eventually be a move toward more free enterprise in Cuba. Latell said of Raul: “I think he’s going to start at the grassroots level by decentralizing the economic planning process by allowing small-scale entrepreneurs to begin to flourish, all heavily taxed and monitored.”

Latell, the author of After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

The news from Cuba for most of the summer has been Fidel Castro’s health. What do you make of his health in general?

He’s been ailing for quite some time. He is now eighty years old after all. He’s lived a very strenuous, very stressful life and especially in recent years perhaps more so than ever. I think it’s pretty clear that he does suffer from Parkinson’s disease and has for a number of years. I first suspected it back in the very early years of this century when I observed him walking in a parade in Havana wearing athletic shoes. I said then, “He’s out of uniform.”

This was instead of his customary army boots?

Exactly. I describe a lot of that in my book—how important the image and the uniform and all of the accoutrements of the revolutionary leader have always been to maintaining his image, and suddenly he’s not wearing combat boots as he always did, but he’s wearing athletic shoes. I thought, “Well, there’s a health reason.” At the time I didn’t conclude it was a serious health problem but in retrospect I think it was one of the first visible signs of Parkinson’s disease.

You’ll have to explain that a bit. How do athletic shoes indicate Parkinson’s?

What I understand about Parkinson’s is that you have difficulty with balance and with walking. I began to suspect it and in fact I mentioned the possibility in the book that perhaps he was suffering from Parkinson’s. But then there were other signs. He fainted in public, he did other things in speeches in public that revealed some kind of infirmity or at least the evidence of very heavy medications to treat some infirmity, and then of course he fell in 2004 and broke his kneecap and his right arm and that was internationally publicized.

There’s a defector in Miami, a pretty high-level Cuban medical doctor who was a colonel, who confirmed the Parkinson’s to me and some others in Miami recently. But I doubt that Parkinson’s is the cause of the current health crisis. It’s much more likely to be something much more imminently threatening. Many doctors I have spoken to have speculated it’s cancer in the colon or stomach.

And of course he named his brother Raul acting president because of his disability and Raul is still acting president. Raul is the only successor anyone has ever thought of for Fidel and he’s five years younger. What kind of health is Raul in?

That’s a state secret too. They don’t tell us. Raul is often out of sight for lengths of time, two or three months. He could have had many serious health crises over the years that would not [have been] reported. I write in the book, based on evidence from very good sources that have known him for years, that he’s a very heavy drinker and started drinking heavily when he was a teenager.

When Fidel named him as acting president at the end of July, Raul himself was not seen in public for some time, right?

Many people made a lot of that unnecessarily. It’s his style not to be in public very much. He doesn’t like the limelight. He’s always surrendered the limelight to Fidel. Fidel likes the limelight, but Raul is content to be in the background. The brothers have been a governing team since 1959 [when their guerrilla force seized power inCuba]. Think of Fidel as the director and Raul as the producer. Think of the Cuban Revolution for almost forty-eight years as an ongoing major, global dramatic event. Fidel is the creative genius, he is the great communicator. He is the one with the vision who sees ahead years into the future and has these revolutionary dreams. He’s moody, he’s eccentric, he’s very self-centered. Raul on the other hand, as the producer, is backstage making sure that the lights come on, that the cast of characters has on the right costumes, that there’s money in the coffers to keep the show going. Raul has been the producer all these years and he’s been the indispensable man.

Do you expect any dramatic changes in the way Cuba will be run in the next year or two?

That’s a very tough question. One key variable, first of all, is how long and in what capacity Fidel Castro is going to be around. If in fact he has terminal cancer and dies within some months, then even Raul is not going to be able to make any very dramatic changes for some decent interval. I don’t think Raul and the successors will recklessly abandon Fidel’s prescriptions and strictures until some decent interval has passed after Fidel’s death. I don’t know when that’s going to be. In the meantime, I think there’s going to be a very high degree of continuity. But after that decent interval following the period of mourning after Fidel’s death whenever that happens, I do believe Raul and the successor team he’s going to be working with are going to begin implementing some pretty significant changes. I see them coming primarily in the economic realm. I think the China/Vietnam models are going to be the ones Raul is attracted to.

China has opened up its economy considerably in the last decade—there’s an awful lot of foreign capital pouring in and they have an extensive labor force, neither of which Cuba has. For Cuba to make any headway economically, obviously, it will have to have some rapprochement with the United States, I would suspect.

I think that will come, too. Raul is not going to take Cuba recklessly into the China model. He’ll begin cautiously and very gingerly. He will take small steps, not great big steps. There won’t be hundreds of McDonald’s [restaurants] right away, but I think he’s going to start at the grassroots level by decentralizing the economic planning process by allowing small-scale entrepreneurs to begin to flourish, all heavily taxed and monitored. I think at the same time he will probably begin to loosen the currently pretty strict regulations that discourage foreign investors. There are foreign investors but they are in pretty limited areas of the economy. They work under great disadvantages because Fidel is so wary of them. Fidel doesn’t want the China model; he doesn’t admire the China model. He doesn’t want Cuban millionaires. But I think Raul will try to achieve a balance.

What’s the situation in Cuba now? How is its economy doing?

The economy is doing better right now than it has been in recent years due to a large degree to the very large subsidies Cuba is receiving from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. By the end of the year the Venezuelan subsidy will total something close to $2.5 billion, mostly in the form of petroleum products. But there’s also Venezuelan investment and some other Venezuelan help. That’s really made all the difference. But this doesn’t mean the average Cuban without access to hard currency is living well at all. The vast majority of Cubans live hand to mouth. They survive, they get the basics: basic nutrition, basic fundamental healthcare. But it’s a pretty niggardly existence.

Let’s keep going on the leadership question because Raul, being seventy-five, could quickly pass from the scene also. Who is the “third” man?

Carlos Lage Davilla is my guess to be the “third” man. He’s fifty-five. He’s on the Politburo of the Communist Party. He’s executive secretary of the Council of Ministers. He’s an economic reformer. I’ve talked to international businessmen who speak very highly of how flexible and pragmatic he is, how he’s not driven by ideological intransigence. I understand he’s respected equally by Fidel and by Raul. And by the way, that’s not normally the way it works. Normally over the years Fidel’s favorites are distrusted by Raul and Raul’s favorites don’t get too far with Fidel, but this is one of those cases where both brothers seem to really admire this guy. He’s been doing a lot of international representation duties. He’s been traveling overseas to represent Cuba at international ceremonies or events, presidential inaugurations for example.

Has he been to the United States at all?

I don’t know that he has.

I guess very few Cuban officials ever get here.

It’s true, very few. Ricardo Alarcon, who is the president of the National Assembly, lived in New York because he was UN ambassador between 1966 and 1978. He speaks perfect English, but I don’t see him as the “third” man. Some journalists have speculated that Alarcon could be the “third” man, but I really doubt it. I don’t think Raul and the generals really have much respect for him.

What will be the political atmosphere after Fidel passes from the scene?

It’s going to continue to be very tough on anyone who wants to express a free opinion. There’s already evidence that in this transition period since July 31 when Raul took over provisionally, he has put a lot of security and police and undercover people into the streets. There’s been a mobilization of military and other personnel. Above all, they want to maintain order. They can’t run the risk in this period now with Fidel failing that there would be anti-regime demonstrations.

Say President Bush calls you in and says, “Ok, you’re an old Cuban hand; what should I do now that Fidel has given up power?”

I don’t say this often on the record. But here we go. I do think the Bush administration ought to initiate, or to indicate at least a willingness or desire to develop some kind of formal relationship with the Cuban military. That would give Cuba legitimacy in ways I think many in Washington are opposed to doing. It might also give greater legitimacy to a praetorian kind of succession, but even so, on balance we ought to have some kind of better dialogue with the Cuban military. There is currently a dialogue of sorts between military commanders at the border between the Guantanamo Bay base and Cuba. It could become the main forum for this kind of thing. Who knows? Maybe it already is.

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