TOPICS > Politics

Castro’s Exit Stokes Debate Over Prospects for Cuban Reform

February 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
An ailing Cuban president Fidel Castro announced Tuesday that he will resign from his post, ending his 49-year presidency at age 81. Two Cuban-American analysts discuss Castro's resignation and whether the move will open avenues for new reforms in Cuba.

JIM LEHRER: Castro’s departure. We begin with a Ray Suarez report on the Castro years.

RAY SUAREZ: The news had been anticipated for months: After 49 years, Cuban leader Fidel Castro would be stepping down. A Cubavision newscaster quoted Castro’s resignation letter this morning.

CUBAN TV NEWSCASTER (through translator): My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath; that’s what I can offer. I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept — I repeat, I will neither aspire to or accept — the positions of president of the state council and commander-in-chief.

Fortunately, our process can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early days of the revolution.

RAY SUAREZ: On the streets of Havana today, Cubans showed little surprise.

JOSE MANUEL ALVAREZ, Cuban Citizen (through translator): Yes, I think if a person feels he’s not able physically to fulfill his role, he must end it.

RAY SUAREZ: And in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where thousands of anti-Castro exiles came to live, customers at this coffee shop also showed little emotion.

DAMIAN ARGIOLA, Cuban Immigrant: Unless they turn the whole thing upside-down and they bring democracy and free elections, and every one of them is out of Cuba, nothing has changed.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush, the 10th American president to tangle with the Cuban dictator, immediately welcomed the news.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections, and I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy. The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.

RAY SUAREZ: Cuba’s national assembly is scheduled to nominate a successor this weekend. Castro’s younger brother Raul is the expected choice. The 76-year-old defense minister and head of the armed forces has been running the country since 2006, when Fidel was struck with serious intestinal illness.

The world has seen little of Fidel Castro since. The most recent pictures show a feeble old man in a track suit, a pale, flickering shadow of the cocky 32-year-old guerrilla who shook up the western hemisphere.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came down from his guerrilla stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains and seized power after toppling right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Castro quickly nationalized U.S.-owned companies and property in Cuba, along with church holdings and the farms and businesses of wealthy and middle-class Cubans, and began an alliance with America’s superpower rival, the Soviet Union.

The hardships placed upon the Cuban economy and Castro’s repression of his Cuban opposition sparked a series of mass migrations that would profoundly affect the United States and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The new American president, John Kennedy, picked up one of his predecessor’s plans: an armed overthrow of Castro. The CIA trained an army of 1,200 Cuban exiles to invade and begin a popular uprising.

On April 17, 1961, the small counterrevolutionary force stormed the beach on Cuba’s southeast coast. Many Cubans rallied to Castro, and his forces quickly put down the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Months later, in early 1962, the U.S. imposed an economic embargo that continues to this day.

Later that year came another confrontation and even more danger. On October 16th, U.S. spy planes photographed the construction of a Soviet missile site in Cuba. A crisis ensued which brought the world the closest it had ever come to nuclear annihilation.

A U.S. naval blockade, called a quarantine, was forced on Cuba. Kennedy took to the airwaves and warned of the consequences.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, Former President of the United States: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

RAY SUAREZ: It took 12 days of intense negotiations and U.N. diplomatic efforts, but the Soviets backed down and promised to remove the missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade the Caribbean island.

Castro put down dissent. Economic conditions worsened. Emigration to the United States surged.

Exiles and their families filled American cities and prospered in places like Miami’s Little Havana. These immigrants became a force in American politics and a vocal bulwark against any effort to lift the embargo or reopen diplomatic relations.

All the while, Castro endured. He rallied his faithful supporters in the capital with his trademark hours-long, fiery speeches full of nationalist and socialist rhetoric. Crowds of thousands turned out to listen.

But even after Castro lost Soviet support and subsidies, he found new allies in the hemisphere in leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who said they were inspired by the Cuban revolution and joined Castro in delighted defiance of Uncle Sam.

Successor to Castro uncertain

Silvia Wilhelm
Cuban Bridges
For the last year and a half, we have waited to really know whether the position of Raul Castro was a temporary one or whether it was going to be a full-time position, whether Fidel was actually going to retire. And today we got the news.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: Now, two Cuban-American perspectives on Castro's departure. Francisco Hernandez is president of the Cuban American National Foundation, and Silvia Wilhelm is executive director of Puentes Cubanos, or Cuban Bridges.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. Wilhelm, I'd like to start with you. If you could tell me what difference it makes now that Raul Castro appears to be in a position to succeed his brother, Fidel, what difference will it make?

SILVIA WILHELM, Executive Director, Puentes Cubanos: Well, for the last year and a half, we have waited to really know whether the position of Raul Castro was a temporary one or whether it was going to be a full-time position, whether Fidel was actually going to retire.

And today we got the news. Of course, we have to wait until Sunday, because they are having elections in Cuba on Sunday, and they will decide who will be the person that will take Fidel Castro's place.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hernandez, how big a deal will it be if that election goes forward as expected? How much of a change will we see?

FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ, Cuban American National Foundation: Well, it all depends on the result of Sunday's selection, actually. And we have to look to who's basically named head of state.

If it isn't Raul Castro, well, there will probably -- it means the opportunity to give the chance to a new generation of Cubans to set the pace for the supposed reforms which they have been talking about for 18 months. If it is Raul Castro, well, we suppose that it will be most of the same.

A new discourse in Cuba?

Francisco Hernandez
Cuban American National Foundation
if we see exactly the same type of leadership, we certainly cannot expect a lot of changes, at least in the near future.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hernandez, you say "if it is Raul Castro." Is there a chance that it won't be?

FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ: Well, I think that there is a chance. I believe that there should be some reformers and some new generation within the Cuban leadership.

And there had been talk -- and actually, in the letter of resignation of Fidel Castro, he mentions that there are new people in government that should be given an opportunity. So we don't know.

But what I'm saying is that if we see exactly the same type of leadership, we certainly cannot expect a lot of changes, at least in the near future.

If we see a substantial change in the structure of government and the individuals that are in the first echelon of the Cuban leadership, then I think that we can hope for substantial reforms in Cuba.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Wilhelm, first of all, do you think it will be Raul Castro? And if it is, how different is he from his brother?

SILVIA WILHELM: Well, I think it all points in that direction. But, of course, we have been wrong before, and we can be wrong again.

If it is Raul Castro, we're talking about a man that has twice called for a dialogue with the United States and has asked the Cuban people to please voice their concerns and their displeasures with certain things in their daily lives. He has actually asked them for a new discourse.

So I am confident that, with this new leadership in place, if it turns out to be Raul or others, that we will see a new discourse taking place in Cuba at the highest levels. And I am very confident of that.

GWEN IFILL: Can you elaborate for me, when you say "new discourse," what particular policy specifically would changed or what difference, what direction would he head that would be different than what we've seen?

SILVIA WILHELM: Well, first of all, there are some internal complaints coming from Cuba, from the Cuban people. They have voiced it, all the way from the academics -- intellectuals have been having this discourse now for over a year on things that could make the revolution better.

One, to give you an exact example of things that are being discussed right now at the highest levels, is the currency situation. Cuba has two sets of currencies right now. One, the peso for the Cuban national, which has very little value, and it has the convertible peso, which is basically used for foreigners when they arrive in Cuba.

But there are many things in their daily lives that they cannot buy with their pesos. And the conversion is something that works adversely on their daily lives.

Cubans want to make sure that, whatever the currency is, it's in par with the salary that they make and they want to make a living and not have to survive resolviendo, meaning either using the black market or doing illegal things.

I don't think a society should be encouraged to solve their daily problems by using illegal ways. So that's something right there on the table right now. Another one is their salaries; they need an increase in their salaries.

Considering the U.S. embargo

Silvia Wilhelm
Cuban Bridges
Fidel Castro has resigned today on his own term, not because of the U.S. embargo. We don't have another 50 years to wait.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. Hernandez about another international issue. And, of course, this is the U.S.'s main interaction with Cuba, and that's the embargo. Do you think that, with a new leader, whether it is Raul Castro or someone else, that the U.S. embargo would, should be lifted?

FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ: Well, certainly not. We have wait and see what this new government -- after all, words are words. And we have been here hearing these words from the Cuban government for over 50 years.

Now, I mean that doesn't mean a thing until -- and I agree with Silvia that there have been talk about all these possible reforms. But in 18 months, nothing has happened.

Now, if things happen, if there are substantive reforms in the Cuban government, yes, I think that the United States should take that into account and move toward not the lifting of embargo, because there are a number of things that have to be resolved before that, but I think that there should be some measuring of the reforms that are taking place in Cuba.

And, yes, I think that the United States should challenge the Cuban government to undertake reforms in favor of the Cuban people. The first thing that they should consider is the releasing of all the prisoners in Cuba and letting the Cuban people to express themselves like, yes, I agree that they have been doing lately.

So more of the same, I think that it's going to go a long way in helping a different attitude on the part of the U.S. government and also on the part of the exile community. We all are waiting for these reforms, and I think that there should be a positive answer to those reforms whenever they come.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Wilhelm, what about the possibility of lifting the travel ban not only for Americans to Cuba, but also for Cubans to America?

SILVIA WILHELM: Well, I'd like to address a little bit of what Pepe had a chance to address, if you don't mind, Gwen. And number one is we have had a policy in place for close to 50 years that has not given the intended goal, which was the, you know, disappearance of the Castro government.

Fidel Castro has resigned today on his own term, not because of the U.S. embargo. We don't have another 50 years to wait.

So I would say that this is a blatant announcement to the international community that our embargo has failed, that it is time to allow immediately Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba.

It's an emergency situation to see their families. They have not seen them for over three years, many, many of them because of the new regulations, and immediately allow Americans to travel.

Because if we want to have any influence with the government that is taking place, going to take place after Sunday, we need to be able to travel, to converse, to dialogue. It cannot happen with a wall in between the two countries.

Cuban-American reaction

Francisco Hernandez
Cuban American National Foundation
The situation in Cuba hasn't changed whatsoever. Let's wait. Let's see if [...] they put their money where their mouth is.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Mr. Hernandez, what effect does -- I guess psychologically -- does it have for Fidel Castro to hand over the reins of power this way among the legions of Cuban-Americans who have been following this so closely over the years?

FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ: Well, historically, it's a very important moment. After all, we have been waiting for 50 years for a dictator to get out of the scene.

And certainly he has to be blamed for a number of tragedies that the Cuban people have lived over all these years. So it's a welcome sign.

To tell you the truth, I never expected him to resign voluntarily from power. But, obviously, his physical condition has had to deteriorate to such an extent that he doesn't have any choice, otherwise he would not have done it.

But, anyways, the situation in Cuba hasn't changed whatsoever. Let's wait. Let's see if really what they say, they put their money where their mouth is. If there are reforms, what I said before, I think that we should respond to those reforms.

But, unilaterally, we haven't seen any signs whatsoever from the Cuban government. This not going to change because Fidel Castro has disappeared.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will see what happens on Sunday. Francisco Hernandez and Silvia Wilhelm, thank you very much.

FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.

SILVIA WILHELM: Thank you very much.