Los Angeles Times
November 15, 2006

Cubans doubt Castro will return to power

Some sense economic liberalization in the air.

HAVANA Nonchalantly jingling a money pouch, a supervisor at the Cubana Airlines check-in counter trolled a line of foreign travelers at Jose Marti International Airport, inquiring if any had convertible Cuban pesos they wanted to sell back for U.S. dollars.

She generally keeps her own money in dollars, she explained to two interested Germans, but changes what she needs for daily expenses into pesos, preferably with departing tourists to avoid a 10% government commission. The pesos "have no value outside the country," she told the Germans.

"What does Fidel think of that?" asked a Swedish traveler in line behind them, surprised by the employee's open disparagement of her government's monetary system.

"He's finished," she replied, drawing a hand across her neck in a slicing gesture. "He has colon cancer."

Speculation about the severity of President Fidel Castro's illness has been a whispered topic since he underwent intestinal surgery in late July and the government branded his condition a state secret. But the airline employee's cavalier comments illustrated deepening public suspicion of Communist Party assurances that the iconic revolutionary will return to power.

The airport scene this month and discontent expressed more circumspectly by other Cubans over shortages and hardships also testify to impatience with a social paralysis that has intensified in the 100-plus days since Castro bowed out.

An Oct. 28 video of him looking pale and debilitated may have been an attempt by the Havana leadership to reassure Cubans and the international community that the world's longest-ruling government chief was still alive. But instead of convincing Cubans that Castro was on the mend, it was seen by many as an indication that he may not be with them much longer.

"It makes you wonder why they put this on TV," said one Havana resident who, like others wary of discussing a sensitive topic in a police state, spoke on condition he not be identified.

He said the video had spurred much hushed conversation and talk of conspiracy theories. Some believe party figures waiting in the wings to take the reins might have been signaling to the populace that his death and a subsequent economic liberalization are coming.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque added fuel to the fire last week when he retreated from earlier assertions that Castro would resume his presidential duties by early December.

Two weeks before he turned 80 on Aug. 13, Castro handed off responsibility for the government, party and military to his 75-year-old brother, Raul, who is defense minister and founder of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. In a message read over national television and radio, Fidel Castro said he would delay celebrating his birthday until Dec. 2, merging it with festivities to mark the 50th anniversary of his revolutionaries' return to Cuba from exile in Mexico.

Castro's brothers, Raul and 82-year-old Ramon, have both lately emphasized that the leader is following doctors' orders to take it easy.

"It's been published that he's going to start working again. We're trying to hold him back a bit longer, though," Ramon told visitors to the annual international trade fair here in late October. Raul, too, has been quoted in the state-run media as saying Fidel is adhering to doctors' advice to take things slowly.

Perez Roque, in a Nov. 6 interview with the Associated Press, declined to speculate on whether Castro would fully recover.

"Whether things will be like before is a very difficult topic," he said. "And I don't have the information or the capacity to say."

Even those preparing for the belated birthday party say the celebrations might be in the honoree's absence.

"At the appropriate moment, in the midst of the disciplined process of recuperation that Fidel is carrying out, he will decide the circumstances under which it will be possible to accompany those of us who will be here in Havana participating in this tribute," said Alfredo Vera, director of international affairs for the cultural organization readying a five-day series of exhibits and concerts across Cuba.

Medical experts outside Cuba who have examined the TV footage of Castro say nothing definitive can be gleaned from his awkward movements or apparent weight loss. But the fact that he remains so frail 3 1/2 months after surgery "strongly suggests a serious illness like cancer," said Jeffrey Raskin, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the University of Miami who has reviewed the tape.

He noted that chemotherapy for a spreading malignancy would slow a patient's recovery from surgery, and he speculated that might be the reason for Castro's apparent weakness.

Uncertainty about Castro's condition has led to debate about the future, albeit mostly in private. It also appears to have emboldened the few voices calling for democratic change.

Prominent dissident Oswaldo Paya mildly chastised leaders from Spain and Latin America who gathered for a summit in Uruguay this month for failing to address human rights abuses in Cuba.

"There has never been an agreement in favor of the rights of Cubans. Indeed, the lack of freedom and democracy in Cuba has never even been discussed," Paya said in an open letter issued here and cited by foreign news agencies during the Ibero-American summit in Montevideo.

Paya is founder of the Varela Project, which seeks political pluralism in Cuba. He said Cuban appeals like his to international gatherings are rare nowadays because "most of our brothers who signed those messages are in prison."

Discontent with pervasive poverty and the Communist Party's monopoly on power has long simmered behind a facade of revolutionary commitment, as many Cubans, especially those in the cities, hunger for a more open and prosperous society. Urban workers, having had a taste of private enterprise during the harsh years after the Soviet Union collapsed and billions in annual subsidies ended, confide that they expect market-oriented reforms from the next generation of leaders.

A series on pandemic workplace theft and corruption published last month in the youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde was notable for its candid recognition of systemic problems in an economy where few have the ability to improve their living conditions legally.

A government announcement soon after of a study of socialism's possible shortcomings enhanced an impression forming among educated Cubans that officials preparing for the post-Castro era are passing a critical eye over the ideological foundations of the system.

Vice President Carlos Lage Davila, architect of the self-employment reform that allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to launch businesses in the early 1990s, is thought to be supportive of economic liberalization.

Even Raul Castro apparently embraces some forms of private enterprise. Top allies in his Defense Ministry have partnered with foreign investors to create some of Cuba's most lucrative assets in the tourism industry, which earns the state more than $2 billion a year.

But the failure of that new wealth to be felt among the masses feeds resentment of one-party rule and economic strictures.

"Cubans are very beaten down now, but they are angry. No one wants Raul or the Chinese model. We want real opportunity," said a 57-year-old with a graduate degree and a $25 monthly salary. "After Fidel goes, if things don't change, I give it one month before there are demonstrations. People are tired of this failed system."

Exasperation with the economic and political stagnation may be growing, but those who express it in guarded conversations contend they are currently powerless to take their campaign to the streets. Cuba's 60,000 soldiers are augmented by legions of police, special security forces, reservists and the ideologically vigilant Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and authorities have more than a million people at their disposal to repel the sort of mass protests that brought democracy to Eastern Europe.

Explaining his fellow intellectuals' reluctance to take on the armed might of the regime, one frustrated Havana writer quipped bitterly, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."