Chicago Tribune
March 18, 2001

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 on
                   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 tour
                   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 the
                   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, really,"
                   he said.

                   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 be
                   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 pay
                   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" from
                   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, U.S.
                   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, with
                   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 and
                   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 island,
                   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 past,
                   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 with
                   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 answer
                   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
                   pragmatic approach."