"Working together for a free Cuba"




Cubans seen as hopeful about future.
By Nancy San Martin

At a conference in Coral Gables, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana said Cubans across the island are looking forward to a change in leadership.

Fidel Castro's tumble to the ground last month and an increasingly difficult economy have prompted many Cubans to begin contemplating the island's future, the top American diplomat in Havana said Tuesday.

''All over the island people are discussing the future, of what they want it to be,'' James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section, told a gathering of Cuban Americans and Cuba-watchers in Coral Gables. ``The lonely voices in the opposition are getting less lonely by the day.''

For years, most Cubans have been saying that there's no use considering the island's future until Castro dies because he wields absolute power and has steadfastly refused to adopt any of the significant reforms that could ease a withering economic crisis.

Electricity blackouts last many hours each day, prices have been rising, housing shortages are mounting and underemployment is rampant, with college graduates working as gardeners and bellhops, other Cuba experts said at the conference.

But now ''Cubans are increasingly losing patience with Castro,'' Cason said. ``In the weeks since Castro's well-publicized fall, more and more regime supporters are now saying it is time for Castro to step down.''

On a telephone hookup from Havana, leading dissident Vladimiro Roca said he had heard Cuban officials speak of a ''high level of social intranquility'' but did not go into details.

Cason's presentation was part of a day-long conference that examined the lessons on post-Communist transitions in the former Eastern Europe and challenges that lay ahead for Cuba once Castro is no longer in power. The conference coincided with the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and was sponsored by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and the Embassy of the Czech Republic.

Most participants appeared to agree that there is little chance of an anti-Castro revolt while he's still in power, sticking to post-Castro scenarios. But they sketched out a wide range of possibilities on what could happen after Castro's demise.

In a separate telephone call from Havana, prominent dissident Martha Beatriz Roque told the crowd of about 200 that transition in Cuba ''is very close.'' She said the lingering economic crisis is ''irreversible'' under the current system.

''From inside and outside, we have to work hard -- all of us who want to see a free Cuba,'' said Roque, 59, an economist jailed during a crackdown last year against 75 dissidents accused of working with U.S. diplomats to undermine Cuba's socialist system and sentenced to long prison terms. She was released in July due to ill health.

Several of the conference's speakers also urged Cuban exiles to set the stage for a peaceful change once Castro is no longer in power.

''The Cubans need a new message . . . a message needed from exiles, to prepare for tolerance,'' said Otto Reich, a Cuban American who held top offices in the State Department and the White House under President Bush.

Experts also cautioned that Cuba's military will continue to play a powerful role in virtually any of the scenarios, and that a post-Castro transitional government may not fully embrace democratic principles or a free market economic model.

''The Cuban population, like the Czech population, has been educated in a state of fear and mistrust,'' said Vendulka Kubalkova, a UM professor of international studies. ``They were not raised to handle, very well, the individualism that is necessary for a successful democracy.''

''It's important to be prepared once the self-imposed Cuban wall crumbles,'' she said. ``It will open a very, very difficult period for which I think no recipe exists.''

Cason also warned against high expectations following Castro's passing.

''All Cubans, no matter how they feel about the regime, are playing a waiting game these days, some with anxiety, some with gleeful anticipation,'' he said. ``We must not assume, however, that when Castro dies, Cuba will transform itself into a democracy the following day.

''Most Cubans on the island today have known nothing but communism -- 70 percent were born after the revolution,'' Cason added. ``Simply plunking down a genuine electoral system won't be sufficient in the future. It will take at least a generation to acquire the habits of democracy on the island.''

Herald chief of correspondents Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.

Source: The Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Nov. 10, 2004