Cuba's Steady March Away from Fidel

The island nation's new president Raul Castro has been rolling out popular reforms at a steady rate since he took office in February. In the wake of moves to all but eliminate the death penalty, analyst Phil Peters discusses what these changes say about Cuba's future.

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MIKE PESCA, host

When Raul Castro officially took over the presidency of Cuba from his brother Fidel in February, he assured the public that he would continue on with the goals of the revolution. But almost immediately he began to focus on practical matters that affected daily life in Cuba, things like lifting restrictions on cell phones and computers.

Earlier this week, he made an announcement that was literally life or death, that he was commuting the death sentences for all but three people on death row. Cuba expert Phil Peters joins us to help us understand what these changes may foretell about where Raul Castro wants to take Cuba. Hello, Phil.

Mr. PHIL PETERS: (Vice President, Lexington Group) How are you?

PESCA: I'm good, we should identify you as a guy who used to serve in the State Department under President Reagan and the first President Bush.

Mr. PETERS: That's right.

PESCA: And you're now vice president of the Lexington Group, a think tank.

Mr. PETERS: Yes.

PESCA: Well, congratulations on that. First I want to ask you about the death penalty. Death sentences of all but three people were commuted. What do you think prompted that action?

Mr. PETERS: Well, it seems that's what happened. The statement that Raul Castro made was commuting the death sentences of a group of people. They're excluding those three. So, independent human-rights monitors in Cuba say that that probably affects about thirty people who had a death sentence pending.

PESCA: So, there weren't that many people in the whole country on death row?

Mr. PETERS: That's how it seems, right.

PESCA: Yeah, and you do you think it's a PR move?

Mr. PETERS: Well, perhaps so. Not every death penalty that is handed down is - death sentence handed down is carried out. There's an automatic appeal mechanism, and it's the case that some of the sentences are commuted. So, one really doesn't know. It could be that they are doing it for internal reasons.

But it's also quite clear that by doing something like this they are going to win political points in Europe, and they're trying to improve and normalize their relations with the European Union. And given the way European governments generally feel about the death penalty, and European opinion about the death penalty, I think they are going to score points on that, on that side.

PESCA: How about allowing dissent? One sign is that there are now Cuban bloggers. Have you read any of them?

Mr. PETERS: Yes, I have.

PESCA: What do you think?

Mr. PETERS: Well, it's a very interesting phenomenon. There are some who have figured out a way to get on the Internet. I mean, it's not impossible to get on the Internet in Cuba. The access is restricted, but in spite of the restrictions on the Internet in Cuba, it sort of leaks all over the place, and just like anything else in Cuba, people find ways to get things done.

And there are some people who have found a way to start a blog, and they're very interesting because they - I mean, they're political. They're also a lot of sort of slice of life type of comments on them.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. PETERS: And so it's a good thing.

PESCA: Well, I have an example right in front of me, and it's called Generation Y. It's written by a woman born in 1975, Yoani Sanchez, who lives in Cuba, and it's called Generation Y. I thought that was just the U.S. marketing term, but she named it because so many people who were born in the '70s and '80s had names that began with a Y.

Mr. PETERS: Yes.

PESCA: I didn't know that, but then I started thinking about major leaguers like Yunel Escobar and Betancourt on the Mariners...

Mr. PETERS: Yes, that's right.

PESCA: I forget his first name, but it also starts with a Y. Do you know why that is, by the way? Total sidetrack, but I never heard that. You have any idea?

Mr. PETERS: No, I'm not sure, but I think a lot of them are sort of Russian-type names.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. PETERS: Like Yunieski, and things like that.

PESCA: Yeah, that's Betancourt's name, and Vladimir is a popular name, and yes, that's true. So, here's just one selection. The first posting that's up now talks about just general rudeness, and it's absolutely like a blog that you would read in America, talking about how words like "excuse me" or "pardon me" have been replaced by trying to blame the person who - trying to blame oneself for doing wrong.

It has nothing to do with politics. Two posts down, she starts writing about who the kind of person she wants to be the next president. She says, I don't want military to lead the country. She says, I don't desire another charismatic leader. She says, I dream with, and here I show my feminism, a pragmatic housewife. I would not have expected that that sort of expression would be allowed to go in Cuba. Is that sort of thing surprising to you?

Mr. PETERS: Well, it is, and I know her, I've met her, and she's a terrific woman. I think that what she's done is something that other Cubans have done in different ways, different walks of life. That is, she's found a way to do something that is probably neither legal nor illegal, and she's just forged ahead, and no one has stopped her.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. PETERS: And that's a perfect little sample you gave us, because some of them are just about this young mom who's out observing things on the street and recounts them, and she's a great writer, and you know, very rich in detail what she writes. But then some things are political, yes.

PESCA: And I don't know, do you think that that could be the wedge to more change?

Mr. PETERS: Well, people expressing themselves freely never hurts.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. PETERS: And it's a good thing, and she's to be admired. Your listeners should know that there is also an English version of that blog. Somebody does it a favor of translating it into English, with a big of a lag, but people can find it and read it for themselves.

PESCA: Right, yeah, it's not just the automated, auto-translation version where you can't understand anything. I was just reading the English version. It was very easy to read.

Mr. PETERS: Yeah, it's a real translation.

PESCA: I want to ask about the personality of Raul Castro, and how it differs from Fidel's, especially a country that's built around a cult of personality. Is he - are some of the changes just because he's a very different guy than Fidel?

Mr. PETERS: Well, he is a different guy than Fidel. He, you know, if you would go through clippings about Raul Castro like five years ago or something, or even more recently, the wrap on him is very clear that he is not charismatic. He's not politically interesting like his brother. He's not popular. He's dull. And some people even say that he's an alcoholic. So, the guy comes in with low expectations, to say the least, at least internationally.

PESCA: But he has also emphasized how subtle he is, and how much he believes in discretion, which means maybe not the grand gesture, which means maybe he has more wiggle room to not have to always emphasize the spirit of the revolution, how much we hate capitalism.

Mr. PETERS: Well, I mean, he's been the minister of defense. He's led the military. So, it's not like he's afraid of the limelight, or afraid of taking on a big job. He's been running the military for all this time. But he's not somebody who relishes all the pomp and circumstances of being a politico. He doesn't, you know, rush to make big speeches. He never makes long speeches. When he speaks he's very concrete.

People in the bureaucracy say that, you know, when he has meetings, they are short. When the meetings go on long, he complains, and so he is very different in that way. He's not an improviser. He works through established institutions. He has said to Cubans, I want people to debate, and I want people to speak up in the right way, and in the right forum, but he says out of the biggest, you know, clash of opinions come the best decisions.

PESCA: So, some of his changes are Cubans can now go to hotels that only foreigners could go to, and Cubans can have microwaves, and we talked about computers, and blogs, but I think there is maybe a more technical thing there. There is a Communist Party meeting that's going on that I guess people like you are wondering what is going to go on there?

Mr. PETERS: Well, right, they have convened a Communist Party Congress for the end of next year, and so we'll see what that amounts to. You know, it could be one of these sessions where everybody - where a program is presented, and everybody just sort of stands up and salutes.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. PETERS: I tend to think, though, there's a process of change going on right now in a number of different areas. We don't know what the end point is, and nobody should stand up and say this means that Cuba is on its way to a market reform of their economy, or to democracy, but there are very interesting changes going on.

I think - you're asking about this party congress. I think that they're going to by that time have something to say about what they've accomplished, and where they plan to go, and what they're clearly trying to do, and in their own words they're trying to get some things right in the system. There are some big problems that they believe have to be fixed in order for socialism in Cuba to carry on...

PESCA: All right, Phil...

Mr. PETERS: When the old guys are gone.

PESCA: Phil Peters, Cuba expert, and vice president of the Lexington Institute. Thank you.

Mr. PETERS: Thank you.

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