Julia Sweig Shares Her Conversation With Castro

In August, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro summoned Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg to Havana, to discuss an article he wrote. Goldberg invited Julia Sweig, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign relations, to join him. Sweig shares details from the conversation they had.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

A few weeks ago, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg was summoned to Havana by Fidel Castro. The former Cuban leader wanted to discuss Goldberg's article about Iran and the Middle East for some help on Cuba. Goldberg brought along his friend, Julia Sweig, senior fellow and director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Julia Sweig is the director of Latin American Studies and also the author of "Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know" and "Inside the Cuban Revolution."

And she joins us now from the studio at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back.

Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me. Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. So there's no dispute that Fidel said the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore, but now he says he didn't mean it like it sounded.

Ms. SWEIG: Exactly. He - a couple of days after we left - last Friday, that is - he went to the University of Havana to release the second of a series of books he's now writing and took the opportunity to say that he was accurately quoted but misinterpreted.

CONAN: How could you misinterpret that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWEIG: Well, the way I interpreted it and the way Jeff Goldberg's blog quotes me as saying is he wasn't brushing off the revolution. What he was saying was the economic model doesn't really work for us anymore. My take on all of this, Neal, is that - and especially this is borne out by the news coming out of Cuba this week...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SWEIG: ...is that this - that what he - what he wanted to say with his clarification was that even though we're changing our model and it doesn't work for us anymore, that doesn't mean we're going to import American-style capitalism. And he was saying that to certain constituencies on the island who have been born and bred to see American-style capitalism as anathema.

CONAN: And he considers that a failure. But the news you mentioned coming out this week, half a million jobs, government jobs, are going to be, well, eliminated.

Ms. SWEIG: Yes. You know, over the summer, the National Assembly met and President Raul Castro, Fidel Casto's brother, laid out the steps to be taken as part of the reform agenda he's been slowly implementing over the last two years. The elimination of - beginning with 550,000 jobs from the state payrolls, but that number is going to double, I believe, over the next year and half or two years - is joined by the legalization of private economic activity, business, small businesses for really the first time since 1968 when they were abolished. It's big stuff. It's not just cutting the state payroll. It's opening up the economy for small-scale businesses.

CONAN: Some astonishingly high percentage of the people in Cuba are on the state payroll.

Ms. SWEIG: About 85 percent, I think, is the number.

CONAN: And with that comes, well, all kinds of benefits - not much in pay, but healthcare and free education, that sort of thing.

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, but I - you know, I'm not quite sure yet because this is sort of a rolling news, and it's unfolding right now. Cutting off the salaries, I don't think at all implies losing the benefits of health and education. It means, you know, there's a lot of people in Cuba that receive a state salary, but that don't actually work.

And these bloated bureaucracies and bloated state payrolls cost the state a lot of money. But I have heard nothing along the lines of losing your job means losing access to those sort of, you know, basic social services that the state is still paying for and providing.

CONAN: And these people are expected now to out and form small businesses?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, exactly. You know, one of the things that one notices - and I've watched this and experienced it over the last 15 years, there actually, since the end of the socialist bloc, so a little bit longer - is there's a huge black economy, huge underground economy. You can get almost any service and buy almost anything you need in Cuba in the black economy, in the underground economy. So the intention, as I understand it, is to bring that stuff up to the surface and allow the state to garner revenues through taxes.

By taxing, they're going to - businesses will be charged five percent tax on the income that they earn and they'll be asked to pay a payroll tax. So in the past, in the 1990s when small scale self-employment was allowed, people could only employ themselves and two other family members. Now the limits on employing others have been removed. That's very significant. And the businesses will be asked to pay a five percent sales tax and 25 percent Social Security and payroll tax. Now, that sounds quite familiar.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SWEIG: That's the way a lot of states get revenue to then be able to pay for education, health services, infrastructure, that kind of thing.

CONAN: And as this kind of program go on, obviously, if Fidel Castro were to be - if it was interpreted by many people in Cuba that Fidel Castro had lost faith in the economic part of the revolution, that would be enormous news.

Ms. SWEIG: Well, it - I mean, it's - it feels like enormous news because Fidel Castro is so well-known to be a committed socialist, a Marxist, Leninist, anti-capitalist, anti-market. But the truth is that even before he got sick - so going back - he got sick in 2006, stepped down in 2008. Back in 2005, made a speech talking about all of the different errors that has been made, including the error of importing lock, stock and barrel the Soviet economic model.

Raul and others and now - this is not even a secret. It's openly discussed. This is the milieu in Cuba today. People are discussing the fact that the model doesnt work, and we have to change it.

So the news of Fidel sort of just, you know, openly acknowledging what everybody knows and talks about, feels like news on the outside. But it was a sort of statement of the obvious for those that follow this and those that live in Cuba, more importantly.

CONAN: You mentioned Castro's illness. Obviously, he turned the reigns of power over to his brother, because he was suffering a variety of ailments, intestinal - how did he look? How did he sound?

Ms. SWEIG: He looked great. He sounded great. You know, I met him for the first time when I worked for a Washington-based think tank in 1987. I then met him in 1998, and about 10 years later and then most recently, about 10 years ago, still at that time with the Council on Foreign Relations. Hadn't seen him since 2001. He suffered a very serious illness. He has in color in his cheeks, bright disposition, voluminous energy. I thought he looked pretty well for an 84-year-old man that that was that sick.

CONAN: And while he - we're talking about his comments about Cuba. He is mostly speaking out today about international affairs, leaving Cuba to his brother and others. And indeed, the reason he called Jeffrey Goldberg to Havana was to discuss the Middle East.

Ms. SWEIG: Correct. You know, the - Cuba has always been, in a way, too small of a stage for Fidel Castro, even when he was president. Big issues of international security, and war and peace, and globalization, and debt crisis and climate change. And sort of the big global issues of the day have been his priority and his focus. The Middle East was the topic of his first public speech this past summer, in July, when instead of a seven-hour speech, he made a seven-minute speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWEIG: I say seven hours because, of course, when he was president...

CONAN: These were common, yes.

Ms. SWEIG: Exactly. So in seven minutes, he spoke about one and only one thing, and that was his concern that a military confrontation between the United States, Iran and Israel could take place, A. But B, potentially escalate into a nuclear conflict. And that speech was given about 10 days before my friend Jeff Goldberg's articles in the Atlantic came out saying, I, Jeffrey Goldberg, am worried about this as well, in so many words. Not agreeing with Fidel, but laying out on the basis of his reporting over the last several months the potential, in his view, of such a - of a crisis involving the United States, Iran and Israel, and potentially going nuclear.

So Fidel read the article. He reads widely. And I think felt that this was somebody he wanted to hear from more, and so invited Goldberg to come down and talk about just those issues.

CONAN: And while Fidel's views may not hold much sway in Washington or, perhaps, in Tel Aviv, it is interesting that he told Jeffrey Goldberg he's been speaking about this with the Iranian president, Ahmed Ahmadinejad.

Ms. SWEIG: Well, he did mention a discussion that he had with him when Ahmadinejad was in Havana not long after, actually, Fidel got sick. At the end of 2006, when Cuba then chairing the non-align movement, hosted a very large gathering of leaders from non-aligned countries, including Ahmadinejad. I think the important part of the discussion with Goldberg - and Jeffrey's blog on the Atlantic goes into a more detail about this and I know he'll write more about it...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SWEIG: ...was Fidel's insistence that Ahmadinejad respect Jewish history, respect the Holocaust, respect the state of Israel, and that that clarity with which Fidel communicated that to Goldberg for Ahmadinejad and Iran to hear was really quite important given the stakes and given the concern in the Middle East. And given, I would say, the standing that Fidel Castro has in the non-aligned movement and for, potentially - I hope at least - those listening in Iran.

CONAN: And it was interesting that he was pointing out to the Iranian president that, yes, Muslims have had it hard being disrespected by the West, but Jews have had it harder.

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, it was very interesting. I mean, you know, he was - there was no pause when Fidel was expressing his view of Jewish history and also his interest in the Inquisition which, of course, Bibi Netanyahu's father is a great scholar of, as Jeff Goldberg's article explains, it was very clear that there was great sort of sympatico for Jewish history, for the state of Israel from Fidel. And he made a point of talking about, as Jeff writes, the kind of environment and the Catholic education he received of anti-Semitism in Cuba when he was a small boy. And he expressed a kind of outrage at the ignorance that that reflected of his own society.

CONAN: We're talking with Julia Sweig, a senior fellow and director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who accompanied Jeff Goldberg - excuse me - accompanied the correspondent of The Atlantic for his conversations with Fidel Castro recently in Havana.

You can find a link to those blogs that we've been talking about at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as he was talking about, Fidel, in that seven-minute speech you referenced, said he was alarmed, not merely worried, that the - at the prospect of war with Iran, and that it might escalate into nuclear war. And of course, he had firsthand knowledge of one of the most dangerous nuclear incident in history.

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, you're talking about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And we talked about the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 27th, which is the day on which a very young Fidel Castro - by comparison to his 84 years today - wrote a now-infamous letter to Nikita Khrushchev. And I'm going to - I won't try to quote this accurately, I don't have it in front me - but essentially saying: if the Americans invade us, which they're likely to do -Fidel was convinced that the United States was planning an invasion - you, Khrushchev, should go ahead and strike first with the nuclear missiles against the United States.

And that was, of course, an enormously inflammatory letter. And Khrushchev didn't listen to Castro, but from that moment and from the peril and danger of that moment, what I gather and what came out from this interview was this Fidel Castro, the 84-year-old Fidel Castro, being extremely worried that rational people can do irrational things in the heat of the moment, and that President Barack Obama and the other actors on this stage might be pulled into a situation that they don't themselves want to be in but could be, as Fidel Castro was himself. And that was the alarm that he was expressing, the unintended consequences, if I can try to paraphrase him accurately, the unintended consequences that would come in the aftermath of the imposition of sanctions against Iran. That was the alarm of which he spoke.

CONAN: Did you get any sense from him, a reinvigorated Fidel Castro, that he might, well, want to retake the reigns, that he might want to get more involved in Cuban politics?

Ms. SWEIG: Not at all. I mean, I have to say, I spent three days with him. We were with him on three different occasions, when Jeff was in Havana with me and then Jeff left, and then I sat down and did a separate interview myself with him and then saw him the next day. So, over the course of a week, there was a lot of time with him. And I did not see any evidence - and this was both in terms of what he talked about and what he didn't talked about, how he spent his time and how he didn't spend his time - that this is a person who's getting back involved in the nitty-gritty of governance on the island, doing the domestic heavy-lifting of transforming that economy that his brother is doing, nor the conduct actually of foreign policy.

While I was there, Raul Castro was receiving heads of state from Africa. He was meeting with heads of delegations from political parties in Spain. He was doing the stuff of foreign relations of a head of state. But Fidel, by what he didn't say and didn't do, in at least in that week I observed, seemed to be making very clear that those two areas are his brother's domain and not his.

Now, Neal, that doesn't mean to say that he's not engaged, he's not interested, he's not actively following and participating as what he calls himself the leader historico, the historic leader of the revolution. But I noticed a very strong differentiation between what he used to do and how he spends his time now.

CONAN: And he's writing books?

Ms. SWEIG: He's writing books. He's written two books. One was, as I said, released last week - the other one a couple of months ago. He's revisiting his history.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. SWEIG: He's going over documents. He's thinking. He's writing. And he is engaging, of course, with the international issues of the day as well. Before Middle East crisis, it was climate change. And I suspect there will be other issues on which we'll hear from Fidel Castro.

CONAN: The end of Jeffrey Goldberg's first blog says concludes, he'll begin his next post on the subject by describing one of the strangers days Ive experienced, a day which began with a simple question from Fidel: Would you like to go to the aquarium with me to see the dolphin show? Did you go with him to the aquarium?

Ms. SWEIG: Yes, I went to the aquarium. And there's a photo of it on Jeff's blog. We went to the aquarium - it was a Monday, which gives you an indication that Fidel isn't running the country.

You know, museums and places like aquariums are closed in many countries, including in Cuba. And on a Monday, Fidel was able to get the aquarium open, and we went along for the ride or the show, and watched the dolphin show, which was pretty spectacular, and brought with us Adela Dwornin(ph), who's the president of the Jewish community there. And it was downright unreal, but there we were.

CONAN: There you were. Julia Sweig, it must have been a great experience. Thanks very much for sharing some of it with us.

Ms. SWEIG: Thanks for having me, Neal. Take care.

CONAN: Julia Sweig, senior fellow and director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, just back with Jeffrey Goldberg from a visit to Havana.

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