The revolution will live beyond me, Castro says
Durable leader shows wit, grasp of details
By Laurie Goering
Tribune Foreign Correspondent
HAVANA -- President Fidel Castro on Friday insisted the future of one-party
socialism is safe
in Cuba after his death and that no successor will be able to change the system against the will
of the people.
"The pope can't turn his followers into Muslims. No one has the power in
this country to change
its course," he told visiting Tribune Co. executives and reporters Friday in a
wide-ranging five-hour interview at the Presidential Palace. The meeting was called to
mark the formal opening of the Tribune's news bureau in Havana.
In discussions that ranged from human rights to the new Bush administration,
a loquacious and often witty Castro also offered observations on everything
from the right temperature to cook lobster to the value of the Internet.
Cuba's durable 74-year-old leader, however, refused to offer much insight
what he sees for his country in the years to come, insisting that he does not
spend much time pondering his own death or his legacy.
"I have never thought much about that because I don't attach much
importance to what happens after" his death, he said, insisting he has
appointed no successor—and that the country has nothing to worry about
when he dies.
Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba's foreign minister, who sat in on Friday's talks,
said in a separate meeting Thursday that Cuba does have a formal succession
plan, updated every five years. He did not disclose details.
Publicly, Cuban officials have said Raul Castro, Fidel's 69-year-old brother
and second in command, would succeed him. Analysts outside Cuba have
long speculated that unlike his legendary brother, Raul Castro might not have
enough charisma to hold the island's reins for more than a caretaker term.
"I trust ideas better than people," Cuba's president, clad in his trademark
green fatigues, said Friday. "No one has the power to change the line of the
revolution because that's what people believe in."
Castro, who appeared fit if increasingly gray, guided visitors on a short
of the palace's ground floor, which is tiled with black marble and decorated
with tall ferns imported from the island's eastern Sierra Maestra. It was from
those mountains that Castro battled Fulgencio Batista's government on his
way to power in 1959.
Showing that his fascination with detail has not waned, Castro recounted
student-to-teacher ratios for most of the island's schools and explained the
cost-benefit ratios of solar power collectors. Looking over a sumptuous
luncheon table but nibbling only on grapefruit and yogurt, he opined on the
antioxidant powers of red wine and on the proper temperature—180
degrees—to cook lobster.
At one point, he had an aide pull out his personal 402-page bound daily
briefing book of news stories and other information gathered from the
Internet, saying the Web had become an invaluable resource for him and the
"The Internet has been one of your best creations in the United States,
Castro quizzed Tribune executives about the proposed Bush administration
tax cut and the recent downturn in the U.S. stock market. He in turn was
questioned about Cuba's human-rights situation and was asked about the
fairness of regulations that exclude Cubans from most of the island's luxury
resort hotels and from access to foods such as lobster, a point of criticism by
many Cuban-Americans in the United States.
"What you have said, it's true," Castro replied. He said Cubans cannot
given access to their island's luxuries because exporting a ton of lobster brings
the government enough money to buy 15 tons of powdered milk, for
"We need to deprive ourselves of lobsters," he said, in order to instead
for government-provided medical care, education and other services. He
admitted, however, that he had been petitioned by Cuban officials to lift some
of the restrictions, which critics charge effectively reduce Cubans to
second-class citizens in their own homeland.
Perez Roque noted that many other poor Latin Americans—including 50
million Mexicans who live in poverty—similarly have no access to the good
life enjoyed by richer members of society and tourists.
Perez Roque said Thursday that he is not optimistic about how relations
between Cuba and the Bush administration will develop, largely because
anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, most of whom are Republican, want
economic sanctions against the island maintained and are lobbying hard to
have an increased voice under the new administration.
"We have now reached the point of absurdity where both countries are held
hostage by a minority," he said, suggesting that the Bush administration had
"surrendered before the battle even started" over Cuba.
The foreign minister said he was hearing "the same refabricated phrases"
the new administration and accused the U.S. of holding on to a Cold War
mentality about Cuba that is no longer justified.
Still, if the U.S. embargo against Cuba were lifted tomorrow, he said,
capital "absolutely" would be welcome, even if its effects proved a challenge
to Cuba's socialist structure.
Lifting the embargo "would pose a great risk to us—political,
ideological—that we are willing to take on," he said. Analysts who suggest
the island's leaders benefit politically from the embargo and secretly prefer
that it remain in place "are mistaken," he said.
Questioned about the dissident movement in Cuba, Castro and Perez Roque
characterized the estimated 300 to 400 activists as puppets organized and
funded by the U.S. government and anti-Castro forces in the U.S. He said
they would have no future role in Cuba.
"If these people did in the United States what they did in our country,
money they receive covertly and overtly … you would keep them in jail for
30 years," Castro charged, saying that the "so-called opposition has been
organized from the outside."
Political dissidents in Cuba deny such charges, saying they are jailed
harassed simply for demanding multiparty elections and issuing treatises under
titles such as "The Country Belongs to All." Many have lost their jobs
because of their activism and struggle to care for their families.
Perez Roque suggested Thursday that if the U.S. embargo were lifted, Cuba
might be willing to tolerate opposition views, something he said it cannot
afford now while it feels "under siege."
The foreign minister dismissed any notion of a multiparty future for the
saying Cuba does not believe that "the idea of democracy should be
connected to multiple parties."
During Friday's meeting, a jovial Castro shared a little of his personal
including his childhood penchant for collecting cracker-box trading cards of
Napoleonic battles. He recalled his youth in a Jesuit school watching
U.S.-made romantic movies while being subjected to what he jokingly called
"sexual apartheid"—a school with no women.
Asked what he thought of the long line of U.S. presidents he has dealt
during his 42 years in office, Castro praised John Kennedy despite tense
showdowns between the two over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion—which
marks its 40th anniversary next month—and the Cuban missile crisis.
"I would say that he had personal courage," Castro said of the former
He also had kind words for Jimmy Carter, a man he said had done more than
other presidents to warm relations with Cuba.
"I would say the American who was very ethical … was Carter," Castro said.
Castro repeatedly brought up the Catholic Church and religion in general
during the meeting. He spoke in clear admiration of Pope John Paul II, who
visited the country in 1998. He also praised Protestant groups and suggested
that "religion can be a comfort to many people and give them hope."
"I'm an ecumenical, and I respect every religion," he said. He did not
questions about his own beliefs.
After a long discussion of growing oil exploration and production in Cuba,
Tribune executives noted that Castro's plans for increased production seemed
to have a rather capitalist tone.
Cuba's leader waggled a long finger and laughed.
"You know, there are many good things about capitalism," he said. Cuba's
economy—a meld between the island's longtime socialist state economy and
a new host of joint ventures and efficiency efforts—is "a handmade economic
model. We're designing it by hand," Castro said.
"Perhaps having the United States as a neighbor has helped us have a more