New face of Cuba's Castro dynasty
TOM FAWTHROP IN HAVANA
SHE may be the troublemaking, free-spirited rebel of the family, but Mariela Castro is seen by some as the future of Cuban socialism.
While her father, Raúl Castro, has become the de facto leader of the country, with her uncle, the ailing president, Fidel, too sick to wield power, people are already looking to the next generation.
Fidel Castro is 80 and his brother Raúl five years younger, whereas Ms Castro, a leading academic and campaigner for gay and lesbian rights, is among a group of more youthful political leaders, including Carlos Lage, the prime minister, and Abel Prieto, the culture minister, who are all in their forties.
Among the Castro faithful, it is hoped they may be able to reinvent and rejuvenate Cuban socialism to address the economic problems faced by the island.
Ms Castro, 43, brings an air of youthful passion, an expectation of change and glasnost, to a country in the process of saying a long farewell to its ageing revolutionaries. And, despite being well known as a passionate defender of a tolerant society
who is opposed to all kinds of dogma, she insists socialism will survive the death of the president.
In an interview with The Scotsman, she called for more open debate on economic problems. "I would like to hear more discussion. We need to experiment and to test what really works, to make the public ownership more effective, rather than simply adopting wholesale free-market reforms," she said.
"As a Cuban citizen, I think we have to explain, discuss and listen to people's questions and criticisms. I don't agree with closing the door on people's experiences."
She said that dealing with criticism of Cuba's human-rights record and its lack of political rights was "complicated because of the US threat".
Referring to the US trade embargo and other efforts to topple President Castro, she said: "We are a besieged country and, under these conditions, some puritans and authoritarians take advantage to impose their point of view. We have constant contradictions in Cuban society."
Cuba has a well developed education system and a health service on a par with western countries, but its command economy lags so far behind, analysts constantly term it dysfunctional.
Raúl Castro is reported to be impressed by some economic reforms carried out in China, and his daughter confirmed: "My father is well aware of the economic hardships, that many things are not working."
However, Ms Castro said too many former Communists in the country now "think the market economy is the only alternative".
Evidently impatient with old orthodoxies herself, she hopes for an economic debate about decentralisation and community-run co-operatives which could provide a different answer to Cuba's problems.
She has clashed with the authorities over human rights in the past, particularly in her role as a leading campaigner against homophobia. The island has had a reputation for rounding up sexual "deviants" and carting them off to work camps.
Ms Castro said although bad things had happened in years gone by, times had changed, and job discrimination and mass arrests were now a thing of the past. "Our work has been fruitful. We have exposure on TV and radio, and people are not hostile these days, although some institutions are still very puritanical. Still, some changes I feel are too slow - it's like one drop today, one drop tomorrow, little by little," she said. "Now society is more relaxed. There is no official repression of gays and lesbians."
Does Raúl Castro, described as an old-school Communist, support her ideas? "My father respects my views [but] he thinks I have to be a good strategist to achieve my goals," she said.
The death of Fidel Castro will see Cuban socialism lose its charismatic leader, and Ms Castro accepts her father is never likely to dominate decision-making in the same way. But his legacy will remain, she believes.
"We will rely on our collective capacity," she said. "We have seen the country is working very well under a co-ordinated leadership. Cuban socialism has been based on Fidel's leadership, but there are other leaders. The process will change."
Castro's daughter could sway him
MARIELA Castro may prove to be a liberal influence on her father Raúl, Cuba's acting president.
Opinion is divided over which direction Raúl will take Cuba once his brother Fidel dies.
Some believe he will adopt a more pragmatic, "softer" approach, allowing more market freedom and hoping for a Chinese-style economic boom.
But others point to a comment by Fidel in 1997 - when he said: "Behind me are others more radical than I" - as evidence he could be more revolutionary.
It was Raúl who introduced Che Guevara to Fidel and he was a socialist several years before his elder brother. Raúl was at least initially more militant than Fidel, a trait which saw him sidelined in the early days of the revolution as it was feared this would put off potential supporters.
However, he appears to plan a more collective style of leadership, bringing in other leading figures from the communist party.
And he is said to respect his daughter's more liberal views. She is thought to have been a fan of Perestroika, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to turn the USSR's command economy into a decentralised market-oriented one in the 1980s.