Fidel Castro looks like he’ll soon be joining his comrades Stalin and Mao in the communist hereafter. After 47 years of abusing the Cuban people and wrecking their economy, Fidel — hospitalized, possibly dying or already dead — has “temporarily” passed his dictatorial powers to Raul Castro, his vice president and younger brother.
No one is sure what will happen next. But Frank Calzon knows as much about what’s going in Cuba and in the Cuban community in Miami as almost anyone. No friend of Fidel, Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, which calls itself “an independent, non-partisan institution dedicated to promoting human rights and a transition to democracy and the rule of law on the island.” I talked to the Havana-born activist Thursday by phone from his offices in Washington, D.C.
Do think Fidel is really already dead?
There’s no way of knowing that. You don’t have an independent media. You don’t have a media stakeout. You don’t have film of a wife going into visit him. You don’t have the kind of coverage that allows Americans to answer questions like about their leaders when they are sick.
How have the people in Cuba reacted to the news?
Very quietly, very concerned. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution have been called to increase their vigilance. The army apparently has been mobilized in several provinces. So the Cubans are going to wait and even if Castro dies, we’re dealing with a Castro dynasty now. We’re just going to have to wait. We don’t know how Cuba is going to be the day after Castro is dead.
When he dies, what do you think will happen in the short and medium runs?
In the short term, something along the lines of what you have now, which is a military government. It’s interesting that Fidel, in his letter, not only transferred power to Raul but issued specific orders mentioning a number of other generals, and they are hard-liners in Havana. That’s immediate. After that … it’s going to be very tricky, because we don’t know how many people among the leaders of the government think differently than what they have said until now.
What would you like to see happen in Cuba?
The Czech model — a transition to democracy along the lines of what happened in Prague. The emergence of a leader with the kind of ethical projection that Vaclav Havel has had. What Raul is looking for, however, is the North Korean model.
How should U.S. policy treat this event?
U.S. policy should be thoughtful and careful and not be rushing to any decisions overnight. Secondly, I think the United States ought to reach out and make explicit to the Cuban people that the United States is not interested in controlling the destiny of Cuba, but that the United States is ready and willing to help with humanitarian assistance, with supplies, with know-how, if and when the Cuban people ask for it. And that’s exactly what the administration has done.
Can you compare Fidel the Socialist Hero with the real Fidel?
Well, Fidel is not a socialist hero if one thinks of the socialism in Sweden or Europe. If we are talking about Soviet socialism, that’s what he is. In that sense, he’s more like Stalin. I think Fidel has more followers outside Cuban than inside Cuba.
The real Fidel — is he ….
The real Fidel has always put power ahead of everything. Ahead of his personal relationships, ahead of the well-being of the Cuban people. There is no reason for Cuba to be in such poor economic condition. Fidel could have easily said to Cubans on the island, “You get remittances from the United States. You use that money to buy seeds or machinery or to engage in trade.” He would not do that, although that by itself will have a tremendous impact on economic recovery. He wants to control. He’s running Cuba the way his father used to run his plantation. The old man used to pay his workers in tickets. They didn’t get money. They would get these pieces of paper and they would go to the company store. That’s what Castro is doing today.
What is life like for the average Cuban right now?
It’s a nightmare. Again, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, all those folks would understand it very well. Rationing after 40-some years. Despite the propaganda, when a child turns seven he is no longer entitled to milk in the rationing system. That means there is no milk after age seven. The Cuban government has in place a system of apartheid where Cubans can not enter hotels, beaches, restaurants that are set aside for foreigners. That includes medical care. Cuba has a program called Servimed for “health tourism.” They have all the medicine and any antibiotics they might need for foreigners but there are great shortages in Cuban hospitals and local pharmacies.
The friends of Fidel would always argue that, “Yeah, but they have that free health care and free education.”
It’s true that they have education but I’m not sure that it is free. Cuban teenagers go to high school in the countryside hundreds of miles away from their homes. Sometimes they don’t see their parents for a couple of months. They go to school in the morning and they work 5 or 6 hours in the afternoon. So, I don’t know how “free” that is.
As far as health care, yes, there are many doctors in Cuba. Fidel cares — for propaganda reasons — about having doctors. But the health care of the Cuban people is severely limited. If you have food shortages, how does that have an impact on health? He also manipulates the health statistics. For example, Cuba, it is true, has a very low infant-mortality rate. But if you look at another page of the report you’ll find out that Cuba has a very very high abortion rate. When a woman has a problem pregnancy, the Cuban government policy is to strongly encourage her to have an abortion. So if you kill all the sick people, of course, you have better health for the others.
Even if Fidel dies this weekend, is it too soon for the exiles in Miami and elsewhere to begin making plans to return to Cuba?
I’m not really sure. You’re not talking about exiles who arrived a year ago. You’re talking about thousands of people who came in more than 40 years ago. They married here. They had children. Their children married here. They have had children. These are folks who have spent two generations in the United States. They are elected to Congress, they pay taxes, they serve in the armed forces. I am sure that some Cuban-Americans will go back to stay in Cuba and many others will go back to visit. But I think a large percentage of Cubans now living in the United States after Castro is gone are going to discover that they see themselves more like Irish-Americans in Boston or American Jews in New York or German-Americans in the Pittsburgh area.
Has anyone ever talked about Cuba becoming the 51st state some day?
That was discussed a couple of hundred years ago, but I don’t think it has any appeal beyond just a very small number of folks. I don’t think the United States is ready to take over a poor island like that. The experiment with Puerto Rico continues to be an experiment. I think it would be much better to have a free, democratic and independent Cuba with a Cuban-American community here that would certainly help Cuba. But there’s no need or any desire for such a thing as statehood.