The Face of Cuba's New Guard
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
HAVANA –– If the Cuban government is so unpopular among its people, Felipe Perez Roque was saying, how could he be doing this?
Moments earlier, the young Cuban foreign minister had stepped from behind
the wheel of his cramped Russian-made sedan and onto the narrow bustling
Old Havana, not an assistant or bodyguard in sight. It was as if Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright suddenly slipped out of her office for an impromptu stroll
alone through Georgetown, ducking into stores and peering into open apartment doorways to say hello.
"The United States is going to win the gold medal in baseball, aren't
they?" Perez Roque joked--for the benefit of three American visitors--with
a shirtless boy on a
makeshift scooter, who answered with a wide-eyed stare. He waved to people gazing down from wrought-iron balconies, stopped a family on vacation from the
eastern province of Las Tunas to chat and gulped a small mojito--the potent Cuban rum drink--at a corner bar.
"I can walk the streets of Cuba, like all of our ministers, because
we are here with authority," Perez Roque said. "That is not the result
of repression. You may
disagree with the leaders of this country, but we are here with authority, moral authority."
More than a million Cuban exiles--and unknown numbers inside the Communist-run
country of 11 million--would disagree with the stocky, 35-year-old minister
a buzz cut. That is, if those outside the island even recognized him. With one of the newest faces in Cuba's leadership, Perez Roque has become a key player in
managing Cuba's relations with the United States at perhaps their most uncertain moment in years.
The Old Havana walking tour last month could be viewed as a bit of diplomatic
stagecraft, an attempt to put a good-natured gloss on a Cuban government
condemned by the United States as a stultifying dictatorship. Indeed, Perez Roque's high spirits contrasted with his unyielding position earlier during a two-hour
interview that captured what the few outsiders who know him say is a mixture of personal charm and party-line orthodoxy that has made him among Fidel Castro's
In the elegant Foreign Ministry, Perez Roque barely paused for breath
as he criticized the "untenable" U.S. economic embargo and immigration
dismissing the Cuban exile community in Florida as washed up for mishandling the Elian Gonzalez episode. Referring to a recent statement by Democratic presidential
nominee Al Gore that he hopes the Castro regime will fall during his administration, Perez Roque said plainly:
"Mr. Gore is relatively young, but he can be added to the list of presidents who have retired without seeing it."
Despite his age and inexperience in government, Perez Roque has perhaps
more access to Castro than any other Cuban official except Raul Castro,
brother, military chief and presumed successor. After rising through Communist youth groups and serving as Castro's aide-de-camp, Perez Roque became one of the
first Cubans born after the 1959 revolution to serve as a minister and sit on Cuba's Council of State.
He jokes that he has "two jobs and one salary," referring to his full
daily schedule as foreign minister and subsequent long evenings with Cuba's
Julia Sweig, a Cuba analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who
has met Perez Roque, said she was "deeply skeptical" when Castro named
him foreign minister
16 months ago. Since then, though, Sweig has come to see him as highly competent and ideologically typical of the next generation of Cuban leadership being
groomed by Castro to carry on his changing socialist revolution.
"He's more than just a channel to Castro, somebody we have to learn
about because he's going to be around for a while," Sweig said. "These
are people who are
very, very pure. What you see is what you get. That transition is taking place everywhere except the very top level. When Fidel and Raul go, the transition will
already have taken place. And Felipe is a perfect example of this group--pure ideologically, committed."
But Jaime Suchlicki, head of the University of Miami's Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said Perez Roque has no real constituency
but Castro. "I
don't think he has any future in the structure," he said. "He doesn't command any troops, for example. I don't see him as a player."
Suchlicki contrasted Perez Roque with his predecessor, Roberto Robaina,
another young up-and-comer until he was fired last year and virtually disappeared
public view. Robaina favored the incremental opening of Cuba's socialist system to small-scale market economics and helped lead the charge for foreign investment in
Cuba. Some diplomats and scholars concluded that he was undone by his high profile in a system that frowns on competitive personalities and his coziness with big
Perez Roque's rise started in the same way as that of many younger leaders
in Cuba--in a Communist youth group. Born to parents who worked in a small
hotel, he became a leader of the Federation of University Students in the early 1990s and reportedly caught Castro's attention by coining a slogan of revolutionary
loyalty: "He who does not jump to attention is a Yankee."
After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from the University
of Havana, he became Castro's private secretary, scheduling appointments,
petitions addressed to the Cuban president and traveling with him on missions abroad. For all his responsibilities, Perez Roque and his wife, a cancer researcher, and
their two young children still share an apartment with his in-laws because of a severe housing shortage in the capital.
An avid student of U.S. public opinion, Perez Roque is occasionally
amused by it. At the start of an interview last month, soon after the Democratic
Convention, he discussed the "kiss that changed the world," his description of Al and Tipper Gore's 11-second televised kiss. "I have read that this has had a
tremendous impact on public opinion there," he said.
But his tone changed sharply when he turned to U.S. policy toward Cuba,
which he and other senior officials here believe has lost the support of
the American public
since the Elian Gonzalez episode. He said the case of the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor, now back at school in his home town of Cardenas, was a "divine
inspiration" for showing that "U.S. policy toward Cuba has been kidnapped by the same people [the Miami exiles] who took the child."
During an animated hour-long lecture that touched on the perceived unfairness
of U.S. immigration, trade and drug-interdiction policy, he said the U.S.
trying to isolate Cuba is "not logical from an international standpoint. It is untenable from an ethical standpoint. And it is inexplicable from a political standpoint.
"What do we want? We want to see the end of the current Cuban policy,"
he said. "We want the end of the embargo. We want to have normal relations
United States. And we believe it is possible to have respectful relations with the United States."
As Congress takes up negotiations over legislation to allow the sale
of food and medicine to Cuba, Perez Roque urged the legislators to lift
the ban on American
tourism to Cuba and take other "measured steps" toward normalizing relations. Although European and Canadian tourists fill Havana and nearby beach resorts,
American tourists--who travel here in violation of U.S. law--are relatively few. He dismissed suggestions that millions of American tourists would have a political
effect on the Cuban government's socialist ideals, saying, "That is a challenge we would like to face."
Perez Roque is perhaps at his most diplomatic, however, on the subject
of life after Castro. Citing several young provincial leaders, ministers
and industrial managers,
he said: "There has already been a tangible transfer of power [to the next generation], and that has been done by Fidel.
"Among ourselves, there are no conversations about that issue," Perez
Roque added, "that do not include the presence and involvement of Fidel."