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Hope fizzles in post-Fidel Cuba

Hints of anger surface as reform appears unlikely. Unrest or mass migration may be coming, analysts say.

March 05, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — With little prospect for change in Cuba on the horizon, inklings of discontent have begun to surface on the communist-ruled island that analysts say could spread unrest or incite mass migration.

No interpretation of the parliamentary decisions following the resignation of Fidel Castro signals a likelihood of more economic opportunity or personal freedom -- the two greatest sources of young Cubans' dissatisfaction.

Coupled with newly named President Raul Castro's call for his fellow Cubans to speak candidly about the nation's problems, the unmet expectation that reformers would succeed Fidel Castro could unleash despair among Cubans over the likelihood of continued poverty and isolation.

Fidel Castro's Cuba never experienced a military coup attempt or a major clash between its armed forces and the people. Demonstrations by the discontented were usually thwarted beforehand by secret police arrests of known instigators.

But frustration with the status quo has been building in the 19 months since Castro began his departure from leadership.

Cubans interviewed on the streets of Havana before and after the leadership shuffle expressed resentment over their inability to travel abroad, access the Internet or use facilities and services reserved for foreigners, even if they have dollars.

"Why can't the people of Cuba go to hotels or travel to other parts of the world?" Eliecer Avila, a student at an elite computer science school outside the Cuban capital, asked National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon six weeks ago in a now-infamous exchange that visibly rattled the parliamentary leader.

Clandestine video of that exchange has been circulating throughout Cuba, instigating discussion and discontent among young Cubans.

In Santiago de Cuba, several hundred students marched in protest of a university regent's handling of a sexual assault incident last month, the largest known defiance of an authority figure since the early 1990s. Smaller protests have been waged recently during soccer and baseball matches.

"People are up to here with waiting," a young taxi driver said of the desire for better living conditions, tapping his forehead with a leveled hand.

Hopes that a post-Fidel leadership would embrace more economic reforms began swelling in July 2006, when the longtime leader temporarily ceded the reins of government to Raul. As it became clear that Fidel's departure would prove permanent, but not be the catalyst for major change, Cubans became increasingly impatient and cynical.

One senior government official wrote to an exile friend in Miami in early February to complain that the island was consumed by inmovilismo -- stagnation -- as Cubans gradually ceased expecting significant change.

Beyond the appointment of Communist Party hard-liner Jose Ramon Machado as next in line to Raul Castro in the hierarchy, the parliamentary session elevated other old-guard stalwarts in the 31-member Council of State.

The council was packed with "Raulistas" -- loyalists of the longtime defense minister and men with personal wealth and power at stake should the country open the economic playing field to a wider sphere of Cubans. Two three-star generals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces were added to the council, joining two others who have served there for decades, along with Raul, the country's only four-star general.

"There's been no rejuvenation of the top leadership in Cuba. The average age of Raul Castro and the six vice presidents is a little more than 70. It's a gerontocracy," said Brian Latell, a former CIA Cuba analyst and author of a rare biography of the younger Castro, "After Fidel."

"These old men will be dealing with the possibility of upheaval, levels of instability among younger generations of Cubans," he said. "That may be the most important problem they are going to be facing."

Andy Gomez, an assistant provost at the University of Miami and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he had heard from Cuban contacts by phone that young people had been arrested "for no reason except [regime] fear they might take to the streets and protest."

He said the testy exchange between the students and Alarcon showed that appeals for Cubans to speak up about the country's shortcomings had been taken literally, and hard-liners have gained strength in a figurative circling of the revolutionary wagons.

In the last two years, more than 70,000 Cubans have migrated, about half of them illegally, to the United States, Gomez said.

Analysts fear that without prospects for change in Cuba, the number will continue rising, perhaps presenting the U.S. government with another migration crisis in the midst of a presidential election campaign. The 1980 Mariel boatlift sent 125,000 Cubans to Florida, and tens of thousands more took to the seas in 1994, in the depths of post-Soviet hardships.

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