Cuba`s ailing icon of leftist revolution is certainly the great survivor. Fidel Castro is back on the scene after years of seclusion.
Castro had resigned as president in a letter to the state-run newspaper, Granma, on February 19, 2008. Cuba`s fiery revolutionary patriarch is back in the spotlight now, but with a difference. He has been hitting headlines these days for making strange statements.
In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Liz Harper, an expert on Cuban affairs, discusses Fidel Castro’s re-emergence, Cuba’s economic woes, and state of human rights.
Liz Harper is an analyst at the US Institute of Peace and has visited Cuba.
Kamna: Fidel Castro recently gained attention with a series of provocative quotes, such as “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore”. Although he backtracked later, yet the statement reignited a debate. How do you see this and his other recent statements on Iran and Israel? Are they indicative of any change in Cuba?
Liz: Since Fidel Castro stepped back into the public spotlight in July 2010, he has successfully attracted attention and world interest.
His statement on the Cuban model, and other recent comments on economic systems, suggest that he does not think the Cuban model of socialism has worked well, but that other socialist models may work better for Cuba -- such as those being developed in China, Vietnam and elsewhere. Fidel and his younger brother Raul have made similar comments before. Raul Castro in particular has been trying to soften the hardline Communists for some time on economic issues in particular. Fidel Castro`s remarks here will help further this, and perhaps we`ll see more privatisation in Cuba`s economy. Already, the Cuban government has announced that it will allow foreign investors to purchase land in Cuba and has allowed some small businesses. Its move to close 500,000 state jobs is often interpreted to be part of the plan to shrink the state`s hold on the country`s economy, and develop the private sector.
Fidel Castro is a very smart politician and diplomat. He chooses his words and audiences carefully. His comments on Iran, Israel, questioning his own request that the Soviets launch a nuclear strike on the US if Cuba was invaded in 1962 were primarily directed for a North American audience.
His comments also come at a time when the Cuban government is crippled by a severe financial solvency crisis. Fidel Castro`s recent comments over the summer represent an effort to curry goodwill from wealthier countries, like Spain and the US, to assist Cuba with trade deals or other financial incentives.
I think this is also indicative of an 84-year old man who is now recovering from an illness that nearly killed him in 2006.
But, words alone cannot signal change for Cuba. They must be followed by actions. The world is watching and waiting.
Kamna: Fidel Castro has taken the responsibility for the persecution suffered by homosexuals in Cuba post 1959 revolution. Do you see any reforms in this regard in Cuba?
Liz: There have been very modest and relative improvements in social freedoms in Cuba. For the first time in five decades, the Cuban government recognised the Catholic Church of Cuba, for example. I am also told by people there that life for homosexuals has improved, but only so far as gay people are not imprisoned or socially marginalised as much as they once were. But, again, this is merely anecdotal.
Kamna: How significant was the decision by the Cuban government to release 52 political prisoners?
Liz: This move stands to be significant, especially since this week, the Cuban regime suggested it may release up to 80 prisoners. If it does, this would be the largest number released since 1979.
However, the prisoners who are released must leave their families and communities in Cuba, and go immediately into exile. That unfortunately indicates the government is not changing so much as to recognise and respect basic human and political freedoms.
Kamna: What is the overall state of human rights in Cuba?
Liz: In a country in which you could be charged with terrorism and sent to prison for 10 years because you were trying to flee the country -- the state of human rights is poor. In a country where an internationally acclaimed reporter is beaten severely by government thugs for writing her opinions -- the state of human rights is poor.
Kamna: Will the return of Fidel Castro help Cuba in boosting its declining fortunes?
Liz: I see Fidel Castro`s re-emergence on the public stage not so much as his "return”, but as his way of placing himself as Cuba`s international statesman and wise man, so to speak.
But, yes, as I have said earlier -- this is part of an overall effort to boost Cuba`s declining fortunes, and for Castro to protect and redeem his historical legacy. I don`t know if it will be successful, however.
Kamna: How do you rate the reign of Raul Castro?
Liz: There was a lot of hope and anticipation that Raul Castro would chip away at the controlling Cuban state, with business and economic reforms and social reforms. These changes are slow in coming and slight when they do happen. Raul Castro, however, does have to contend with the hardline Communist faction in the Cuban government -- which does not want any change.
Kamna: How will Cuba look like after the Castro era? Will there be any change in Washington-Havana ties?
Liz: It`s hard to say. What happens over the next six months -- as far as economic reforms, financial health and its role in the world -- will be critical. But, Castro is a beloved leader in Cuba; Cubans are very proud of their government. I don`t anticipate any immediate change on the island when Fidel and Raul Castro are no longer in control. There could be some changes between the US and Cuba in the coming years, especially if there is a change in leadership in Havana.