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Cuban Government Celebrates 50th Anniversary

January 1, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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On the 50th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in Cuba, analysts mull U.S.-Cuban relations and efforts to reform the economy and politics of the Latin American country.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, is it time for a change in U.S. relations with Cuba? The government there celebrated its 50th anniversary today without the public participation of its legendary leader.

On New Year’s Day, 1959, Fidel Castro and some 9,000 rebels descended from the mountains and declared victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista. By 1961, Castro had embraced communism and, in response, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations and imposed an economic embargo of the island nation.

Following major surgery two years ago, Fidel Castro, now 82, has only been seen in public on film and video. Fidel formally resigned his presidency last February and turned over power to his brother, Raul Castro.

Raul, 77, has maintained a tight grip over the country, but has made some minor reforms. The 50th anniversary of the revolution comes as a debate heats up in Washington and in Miami on U.S. policy toward Cuba.

During the presidential campaign, President-elect Barack Obama called for a rethinking of Cuba policy.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: It’s time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. It’s time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, Mr. Obama said the embargo should stay in place. Ending it entirely would require an act of Congress.

BARACK OBAMA: I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.

That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba: through strong, smart, principled diplomacy.

RAY SUAREZ: Marking a major turnaround from the past 10 U.S. presidents, Mr. Obama has said he would sit down face-to-face with Cuba’s leader. That idea is anathema to many of Florida’s more than 800,000 Cuban-Americans, but Mr. Obama carried the state in November, in part with a big win among non-Cuban Latino voters.

Polls show shifting attitudes among Cuban-Americans in Florida, especially the young, with more than half supporting an end to the embargo.

In Havana, Raul Castro recently offered to free some political dissidents in exchange for the release of five Cuban spies in U.S. prisons. Castro also said he’d like to meet President-elect Obama on neutral ground and discuss normalizing trade.

Anniversary provokes mixed reaction

RAY SUAREZ: For two views on where we go from here, Adolfo Franco, who served as chief of USAID's Latin American programs during the current Bush administration. He's now a vice president at Direct Selling Association, a trade organization. He was born in Cuba.

And Daniel Erikson, author of "The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, The United States, and the Next Revolution." He's a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue. He's traveled to Cuba regularly. His last visit was in October.

And what's the mood like in Cuba as it approached this milestone anniversary, somber, jubilant, a mix?

DANIEL ERIKSON, Inter-American Dialogue: I think that there is actually a mix. When you look at people and how they're looking at this 50th anniversary, there's a recognition -- there was a historic leadership transition that took place on the island, as Fidel Castro stepped down as president, and also a leadership transition here in the United States.

And I think people are looking to the future with a mixture of hope and concern. The hope is that there will be positive change taking place both in Cuba and with U.S.-Cuban relations. And the concern is, quite frankly, it won't come fast enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Adolfo Franco, what are you hearing from the island?

ADOLFO FRANCO, former official, George W. Bush Administration: Well, I think the so-called celebrations have been rather somber in Cuba, and they reflect 50 years of failure, a regime that is not only bankrupt morally and financially, but continues to repress its people. So there's not much to celebrate by ordinary Cubans.

I think this is an opportunity with the incoming administration to take stock of the reality of Cuba, a country that depends on about $11 billion in foreign currency reserves, about half of those come from Venezuela and other countries that have propped up the regime through doctors and other things they pay for. Those reserves are probably going to dry up as the collapsing oil prices will make it more difficult to continue.

The others come from nickel and tourism. Both are significantly down, nickel exports and tourism. So I think Cubans will see more scarcity.

This is certainly not the time to have the United States infuse Cuba with foreign currency dollars and to prop up a repressive regime, but rather to stand with the dissidents and others that are fighting for change within the island.

New generations of leadership

RAY SUAREZ: But what about that air of expectation that Daniel Erikson just talked about that accompanies the anticipation of this new administration in Washington?

ADOLFO FRANCO: Well, I hope, with the election of an African-American as president -- the majority of Cubans today on the island are Afro-Cubans -- that President Obama will stand with the people of Cuba and not sit down as he has said during the campaign.

I hope he rethinks the position of sitting down without pre-conditions and really take the advice of Senator McCain and Senator Clinton, who had said repeatedly that would be the wrong thing for the president of the United States to unilaterally, without any concessions or any changes within Cuba, signal that the United States is willing to reach an accommodation with the regime.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what do you make of what Adolfo Franco just said?

DANIEL ERIKSON: Well, I mean, I think that, with this 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, we have basically five decades of evidence that the U.S. approach of trying to starve out the Castro regime in the hope of some sort of democratic change simply hasn't occurred.

I think that really, at this moment, we're in 2009. It's almost 18 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, that this is a moment where the United States should really take a far-ranging look at its relationship with Cuba and that President Obama is particularly -- President-elect Obama is particularly well-positioned to do so.

He's actually the first U.S. president who was not even born when the Cuban revolution took place. And President Eisenhower put the first sanctions in Cuba in 1960, also before President-elect Obama came on the scene.

And so I think that there's really a new generation of leadership here in the United States, a new generation of leadership that is emerging, albeit very slowly, in Cuba. And this could offer some possibilities for dialogue.

Debating the U.S. embargo

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Erikson, you know the history. Administrations have switched from Democratic to Republican and handed back to Democratic again. And though the rhetoric and the expectation has changed from time to time, hasn't the policy been pretty consistent through those 50 years?

DANIEL ERIKSON: Well, it has been. I think the forces for continuity have been quite strong.

The one major change, really, was, once the Cold War ended in 1991, the rhetoric of the United States towards Cuba shifted away from an effort to contain Cuban communism and more towards trying to get Cuba moved towards a democratic government.

And I think that the results are in of that experiment since the early 1990s, where really you have not seen substantive change in Cuba. And I think that, at this late date, we have to admit that waiting for Fidel Castro to die is simply not a viable basis for U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba.

ADOLFO FRANCO: I think that would be a colossal mistake. The fact of the matter is that the leverage this country holds and that the United States holds over Cuba is precisely the embargo. And that's for this following reason: The fact is, Cuba is starved for foreign currency.

In the 1990s -- Dan just made reference to the consistent policies that have not yielded changes in Cuba. I disagree with that. The few so-called reforms in Cuba and reduced military spending have been a consequence of the pressure the United States has applied and not having the necessary capital.

The fact is, Cuba has reduced its military budget by half. That's not because Cuba wants to do so; that's because there's less money and there are no longer Soviet subsidies.

President Clinton tightened the restrictions on travel to Cuba and remittances in 1994. So there's plenty of precedent to demonstrate that, when that happens, there is at least a temporary opening in Cuba.

Therefore, we need to continue to press on two fronts. First, to deny the Castro regime the resources it needs to continue its repression and, secondly, the moral ground that we've had with South Africa, with other countries throughout the world, that simply states the following.

We're not going to tolerate a society that practices apartheid, which Cuba does. We're not going to have a situation in Cuba where Cuba sets the rules in foreign engagement, as it does with Canada and a host of Western European countries, but rather that it has to open up and have free elections and, as a first condition, free political prisoners.

To reward the regime without any movement whatsoever is a mistake for the United States and certainly not in our national interest.

DANIEL ERIKSON: Can I just say that I think the concept that the U.S. embargo represents some sort of leverage over the Cuban government is a confused notion.

I think that, in fact, isolation of Cuba has resulted in absence of U.S. leverage. And, indeed, it's other actors, such as China, Russia, Venezuela, many of whom are potential or current rivals of the United States, that have far greater leverage in Havana than we do.

And history demonstrates it's the countries under communism who have had the most linkages with the West and the most economic and cultural ties with the West that fare better during periods of democratic transition. And this has been demonstrated in the case of Eastern Europe.

ADOLFO FRANCO: We can't -- we have a representation in Havana. We have, really, a virtual embassy. We have an interests section with hundreds of U.S. personnel. We have contact and accords with Cuba when we need to have them. There's Canadian influence and European influence, Spanish influence, and it has resulted in no change in Cuba.

The idea that the United States would change its policy and change would bring -- be brought about in Cuba just because of a change in policy is not going to be the case.

How different is Raul Castro?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk about the change in leadership, because that has gotten a lot of attention over the last two years. And is it possible that a new leader makes the possibility for change more real? Is Raul Castro a different leader from his elder brother?

DANIEL ERIKSON: Well, I mean, I think there's similarities and differences between Fidel and Raul Castro. Of course, the most noted similarity is they both have the last name "Castro," which makes it a little difficult for the United States to reach out to them.

But at the same time, Raul Castro has demonstrated at different points a form of economic pragmatism. He clearly is not trying to govern Cuba based on some sort of charismatic revolutionary leadership, as in the case of Fidel. And I think that there are some chances for opening.

RAY SUAREZ: Wait, I'm assuming that you don't agree, but quickly, Adolfo.

ADOLFO FRANCO: I don't -- I don't agree. This -- Raul Castro is the henchman of the Castro brothers' dictatorship, the person in charge of the military and the security apparatus in Cuba, a person despised by ordinary Cubans.

If that's the change in leadership, it argues strongly the United States must stay the course and continue to put the necessary pressure on Cuba.

RAY SUAREZ: We're going to have to leave it there. There will be change coming one way or another, and we'll have to have you back. Thanks, gentlemen.

ADOLFO FRANCO: Thank you. Thank you for having us.