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In Cuba, Hints of Dramatic Change Emerge from Fidel Castro

September 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner speaks with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine and Latin America analyst Julia Sweig, who met with Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro in Havana and discussed the shortcomings of the island nation's economic system.
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MARGARET WARNER: And we are joined now by “Atlantic” magazine correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg and Julia Sweig, who accompanied him to the meetings with Fidel Castro in Havana. She’s director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the recent book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Welcome to you both with your very interesting story.

Julia, let me begin with you.

First, before we get to the news of the week, your impressions of Fidel Castro. You have known him a long time. How did he look? How did he sound?

JULIA SWEIG, director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations: I found him to be in very good health, obviously a bit frail. He suffered a very significant illness. But he had color in his cheeks. He was very engaged in conversation. Gone were the monologues. And I found him to be quite relaxed, witty, interested, interested in Jeffrey Goldberg, and interested in hanging out.

MARGARET WARNER: What was your impression?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, national correspondent, “The Atlantic”: Well, I wouldn’t quite say that he’s given up the monologues entirely. Some of the answers were quite long. But I was surprised at the level of mental acuity. I mean, we had all read over the past four years that he was on his deathbed. And he has sprung back to life, in that sense. It’s quite — quite something. And he’s also weirdly jocular. It’s…

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Weirdly?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, you know, you don’t expect the average Caribbean communist dictator to be jocular, but there he was cracking jokes.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now we get to the controversy over whether he really said the Cuba economic model no longer worked.

And, Julia, you are fluent in Spanish, as well as English, obviously.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Did he really say that?

JULIA SWEIG: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER:And what did you make of him trying to roll it back?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, yes, he really said that. Let it be stated here definitively. I was there. He said it. And he said it definitively and unequivocally. His attempt to roll it back might take away from that, and it picked up in your story a little bit, was saying: Although we are changing our model, and it needs to change, that doesn’t mean we’re importing their model, the American capitalist model.

There’s a long history in Cuba of discussing publicly what models do and don’t work, whether Spanish imperial model, American neocolonial model, the Soviet communist model. And, so, God forbid they actually should change their model and import something else. This is a Cuban hybrid that is evolving.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: But, you know — yes.

MARGARET WARNER:So, what did you think when you heard him say that? As a journalist, did you just go, bingo?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, of course. But you train — as you well know, you train your face not to betray the kind of excitement or…

MARGARET WARNER:The idea that you just got a scoop.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: But I did glance over at Julia, and we both kind of went: I think he just said, essentially, never mind. You know, 52 years of revolution, but, all right, we — we’re now on to something else.

The interesting thing about this controversy over the quote is that, if you have been in Cuba recently, you know that what he said was already a truism. I mean, you know, he tries to walk back the quote a few days ago, and then, a couple of days later, his brother announces that they’re firing a million workers off the public payroll and allowing people to develop private business.

Obviously, if the Cuban model was working, we would haven’t seen what we just saw.

MARGARET WARNER:So what does explain the news of this week, half-a-million state workers being fired, and pretty abruptly, by next March? What is driving this?

JULIA SWEIG: Many things.nFirst of all, the global financial crisis has created a huge solvency problem inside of Cuba. But, more deeply, and before he got sick, but especially under Raul Castro, he has been advancing, President Raul Castro, a reform agenda. And this is the implementation of that agenda, which involves shrinking the size of the state and bringing up above ground all of the underground, illicit economic activity that has been around in Cuba now for almost two decades.

This is about changing the relationship between the state and the individual, so that the government can grab rents and use taxes to fund entitlements. Kind of sounds familiar, but it’s a deep change in the political culture.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think — you think this is the beginning of or part of something quite profound, not just a budget-relieving measure?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Julia is the preeminent expert, but I would say that it just struck me that this is a very pivotal week in the history of Cuba, I mean, because, in essence, he — they are fulfilling — the Castro brothers are fulfilling the idea that Fidel floated to us a couple of weeks ago.

And, look, it doesn’t mean that they’re giving up the idea of the revolution. They’re not going to return Cuba to the oligarchical of Batista. But, five years from now, it’s going to look remarkably different. I mean, the bigger question is, can an American government recognize whether the differences — these differences that are coming?

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but let’s stay on the island for a few more minutes.

Julia, do you think that this — the private economy such as has started can absorb half-a-million workers that quickly? What will these people do?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, maybe not — I’m an optimist. I mean, I see Cuba and I need for absolutely everything. And I also see that underground economy, where goods and services are already proliferating.

I think there are some workers who will lose their jobs and who will not immediately be absorbed. But I also know Cubans to be enormously entrepreneurial and very able to get things done, and sort of quashed until now by this heavy presence of the state.

JULIA SWEIG: So, I think it will be a period of adjustment, but, yes, absorb the overflow.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’re very resourceful, I mean, all kinds of little businesses and things that they have. They can fix anything.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, look, I mean, you saw on the film clip before these 50-year-old Chevys and Buicks that they still drive using refashioned Soviet parts.

I mean, Cuban mechanics obviously have to be the best mechanics in the world. They’re going to figure out all sorts of things to do. One of the things that’s important here, though, I think, to mention, one of the theories about why Fidel Castro is doing what he’s doing in public, and apologizing, for instance, to the gay population of Cuba for their earlier repression, is that they need American tourist dollars.

It’s something that they do need. That’s a quick injection of money. It’s a quick way to produce jobs. And it’s just a theory, but the theory is that he’s trying to signal in various ways to the Obama administration that, look, things are changing here. Maybe you want to ease up on the travel ban that prevents ordinary Americans from going there legally.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of that?

JULIA SWEIG: I think Jeffrey’s right, to a certain extent.

There are a couple of different audiences that Raul and Fidel and others in Cuba are speaking to. Domestically, they have mouths to feed and opportunity to create and a young generation whom they want to have a stake in their future in some sort of socialist revolutionary context that they can leave as their legacy.

But, for the United States — and so they’re doing things for their own set of interests. But the United States — I think the question is, will the United States take yes for an answer? They are now releasing political prisoners, liberalizing their economy. Fidel is not in charge anymore. The state media, controlled by the state, does have a freer degree of open debate.

But Washington seems not to be responding, at least not in any kind of direct way that I can see, other than for a domestic political base in South Florida.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you know that there — not from the two of you, but there would be a debate on that — on those latter points. So, let me go back to Raul and Fidel. So, there’s been this question, who’s really running the show?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And I know it’s hard to tell. You’re not — as you said, you’re not a Cuba expert, but what was your sense of the dynamic?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, I will tell you the exact moment when I thought, hmm, maybe Fidel was not actually in charge, because the assumption has always been that, oh, Fidel is telling his younger brother what to do.

MARGARET WARNER: And his younger brother is having to go slow because Fidel doesn’t like it.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Because Fidel doesn’t necessarily like it. That’s a theory. But after a five-hour meeting that we had on a Sunday, Fidel turned to us and said — this is a literal quote — he said, “Would you like to go to aquarium with me tomorrow to see the dolphin show?”

And, of course, we said, yes. Who doesn’t like a dolphin show? And so we spent a couple hours with Fidel Castro at the dolphin show on Monday. And he wasn’t running the country, obviously, on this particular Monday. He was enjoying the dolphin show.

He was talking to us about big-picture issues. But it seemed to me that if he’s — he might be semi-retired. It might be only semi, but he’s certainly not engaged in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute running of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, very briefly, do you think they are in sync on this need for economic reform, or do you think there is still a push-pull?

JULIA SWEIG: Yes, I think they are in sync in the sense that they are partners and have been for the last 60 years of their political lives.

I think Fidel has a stronger allergy to the market than his brother, but he is not getting in the way of what his brother is now implementing.

MARGARET WARNER: Julia Sweig and Jeffrey Goldberg, thank you both.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you.

JULIA SWEIG: Thanks for having us.