What's Next for Cuba?
ALISON STEWART, host:
As we've been hearing throughout the show, Fidel Castro has stepped down officially as the leader of Cuba. President George W. Bush commented on Castro's resignation at a news conference in Rwanda.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
The U.S., Bush said, wants to help the Cuban people realize the blessings of liberty.
Now to get more on the situation in Cuba, we've called up Julia Sweig. She's the director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution." We should not that Sweig has advised Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign, and that her views on Cuban do not necessarily reflect those of any political campaign. Hey, Julia.
Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Director, Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "Inside the Cuban Revolution"): Hi, how are you?
MARTIN: Doing well, thanks for joining us.
SWEIG: It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: Julia, you're a watcher of Cuba. Was this expected in your circles?
SWEIG: Oh, very much. It was just a matter of time. Castro announced that he was sick about a year-and-a-half ago, more than that now. And we all knew that these elections, those that were held in January and those that are taking place this weekend, would really be the determining moment. It was hard for me to imagine that he would continue, given his physical state and given how stable things have been since his provisional power was turned over to his brother, Raul.
MARTIN: Now, we'll talk about that. In July '06, Fidel Castro transferred his power to his brother, Raul, and you say things have been stable in Cuba since then.
SWEIG: Oh, quite, quite stable. And that's sort of been the big story, which is that there was no big bang. Castro stepped aside and life moved on. And his illness but not death allowed Raul to manage expectations, keep them fairly low. And things have been quite stable in Cuba, to the surprise of many, especially in the U.S. government.
MARTIN: When we say stable, do you mean better?
SWEIG: Well, I mean better in some sense in that Raul Castro has elevated the expectation that some pockets of the economy will become more open, that the state will get out of the way and allow the Cuban people a bit more space to operate independently from it. And I think that once this leadership transition is over, at least in the next couple months, we're going to see more policies to reflect that view that bread-and-butter issues are critical, very critical. And in that sense, things aren't much better, but there's a hope that they will become better.
MARTIN: What does, then, Fidel's official resignation really mean? Is it just symbolic?
SWEIG: I think it's more than symbolic, because, look, if he hadn't been sick a year and a half ago, then this headline today, Fidel resigns, would be just enormous. Think of it. The guy has been in power for 50 years, and then he steps aside peacefully. And he hands over the reigns of power, not only to his brother who is a few years younger than him, but to a lot of people who are of the second and third generation of leadership.
Look, there's a widespread view that the current system in Cuba - and by that I mean having not so much the closed political model, but certainly the closed economic model - that that is not sustainable, and that Raul and the others don't have the charisma that Fidel has and so that they have to start delivering. And I think this is a major turning point, the results of which will not, I think, bear fruit immediately, but as a starting point, it's very significant.
MARTIN: About these economic reforms, you say there are people there who are pushing for more economic openness. What are some of these reforms?
SWEIG: Well, let's start with Raul. He, of course, was behind the modest economic reforms of the 1990s after the Soviet collapse. And subsequently, and very recently, has talked about the agricultural factor, for example. There they're talking about - they don't use the word privatizing, but they're talking about privatizing a lot of small and medium-scale (unintelligible) networks. They're talking about just getting the state out of the way and letting small-scale producers buy and sell, and people buy and sell.
They're also talking about privatizing, without using that word, small state enterprises. And by this I mean restaurants, and not just the family paladars, and hair salons and mechanic shops and small businesses that are technically run by the state but really prone to corruption and theft, and just privatizing that. That would be very, very significant.
MARTIN: Let's get back to Fidel Castro. What will be - he's still alive and kicking. He said in his outgoing message that while he's surrendered the reigns of the office of the presidency, he's not saying goodbye, and that he wants to, quote, "Fight as a solider of ideas." What do you take this to mean?
SWEIG: Well, I think that he's going to stay engaged mentally and intellectually, and possibly politically until the day he dies. That's what it means. I mean, this is a - the battle of ideas is his way of talking about how an old guy like him stays involved, frankly, and keeps the Cuban population somewhat alert. I think he sees his role as constantly exhorting the Cuban population not to be numbed by, sort of, the neo - the savage neo-liberalism and globalization that he's been so critical of.
So I think he'll sort of be the, you know, the grandaddy, the great leader who's going to put out statements and thoughts and keep some of the revolutionary cadre inspired, at least, while the real people doing the work try to figure out how to run the country and deliver food to the table and a sense of opportunity and a future for the people in Cuba that aren't the revolutionary cadre, and the latter are the majority.
MARTIN: Now we heard President Bush respond to the news of Castro stepping down by calling for a transition to democracy in Cuba. How real is this? And what does Castro's official exit mean for the future of relations between Cuba and U.S.?
SWEIG: Well, President Bush doesn't have an ounce of credibility in Cuba. So whatever he says, I would just dismiss immediately. And I say that not just because I happen to be supporting the other party and one of their candidates.
But the United States has not been, and has not been a constructive player on the island for many, many decades. We exert a negative influence. We helped the regime consolidate itself and strengthen its nationalist ethos. But for the United States to play a positive role, we need to start getting rid of the embargo. We need to lift the travel ban. We need to start talking diplomatically to Cuba about a whole range of issues on the political and security front. We need to take Raul Castro up on his offer, now made three times, to sit down and have a range of talks.
I mean, look it, we have 10 percent of Cuba's population lives in the United States. We have 20,000 or more Cubans that come here every year. We have what President McKinley called ties of singular intimacy, and those aren't going to go away no matter who's in power in Havana, Miami or Washington. So I think if the Untied States wants to exert a positive influence, we have to get involved. And the great thing about the Cuban people and the American people is that they get along really, really well. So I think there's ample opportunity.
MARTIN: Let's talk about, just to close, the exit of Castro, how that will affect the geopolitical landscape. He's inspired leaders around South America and various social movements. We've seen a resurgence of that in the last few years. How does his exit change the political landscape in South America, Latin America?
SWEIG: That's a great question. I think that the political land - he has left his mark, to be sure. I mean, he left his mark in the 1960s with supporting guerilla revolutionaries and leftist parties. But now, in a way, you have sort of Castro's children in power throughout Latin America. You've got Lula in Brazil. You've got Evo Morales in Boliva. Certainly, you've got Chavez in Venezuela. Daniel Ortega is back in Nicaragua.
But more than that, Castro's, let's say, critique, of American power is shared very broadly in Latin America by the left, right and center, and also globally. I don't think that his - I think his death will send him into mythical status, of course. But I think that the sense that there's a solid role for the state to play, even in the context of a market economy, is his major legacy in terms of how the center and center-left heads of state, who have cut their political teeth at his knees are governing.
And I left out Michelle Bachelet. That's the other one, in Chile, who also has a history with Cuba. But isn't a - aren't governing as communists, are governing as centrists, but with a commitment to social justice that they're unashamed to embrace.
MARTIN: Thanks, Julia. We appreciate it. Julia Sweig is the director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution." Thanks, again.
And go online to find - if you're out there, if you've got more questions about what's going on in Cuba, go online to find out more about Castro and what his exit means. We have a chronology of Fidel's Cuba, a history of the U.S. policy towards Cuba, as well as Castro's letter of resignation. All of it is at npr.org.