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Cuba's Future: An Interview with Julia Sweig

A top policy analyst in Washington talks about Cuba today, a post-Fidel Castro regime, key players on the U.S. side and new ideas for changes in America's approach toward its island neighbor
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

Julia Sweig is simply in the right place at the right time. She has devoted parts of her career to understanding and writing about Cuba, a natural extension of her interest in how Latin Americans deal with American power. In the 1980's she took American human rights experts into Cuban prisons. In the 1990s she became the only American scholar with access to Fidel Castro's presidential archive. Since 2000 she has taken the likes of David Rockefeller and Blackstone's Pete Peterson to meet with Cuba's leadership, including Fidel Castro.

When President Castro fell ill last summer, her knowledge of Cuban society and her contacts with the country's top government officials made her an indispensable source about what the consequences might be for both Cuba and the United States. Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and the director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was born in Chicago, graduated from the University of California-Santa Cruz and earned her Masters and PhD at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.

She is the author of Inside the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, and Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century. She authored a piece in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs titled Fidel's Final Victory about the impending transition in Cuba in the wake of Castro's illness. She sat down with Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, Gordon Mott, in Washington earlier this year to discuss the current conditions in Cuba and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cigar Aficionado: Has there been a transfer of power inside the Cuban government since President Fidel Castro became sick last July?

Sweig: Yes. In fact, it started before Fidel's illness was even announced. But from the summer of 2006 to now, that transition is well under way.

Going back to before his illness, really over the last 10 or 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Fidel has been repopulating the bureaucracy with a second and third and now fourth generation of officials. That's happened in all Cuban institutions. Not necessarily in the top leadership positions, but in the workaday ranks of the bureaucracy. It was at least 10 years ago that the original revolutionary barbudos [the bearded ones] were sent to pasture and young people were brought in to all levels of government.

By the time you get to his illness in 2006, within the politburo, within the national assembly, within the counsel of ministers and within the Communist Party, you have these second, third and fourth generations running the country. That list includes Raúl Castro, but there were a number of newer people too.

When provisional power was transferred to half a dozen colleagues, half of them were old school who had been with Raúl and Fidel in the mountains in the 1950s and the other half [were those] who really cut their professional and political teeth in the 1990s. That's why, at the leadership level, the process of training and running the country post-Fidel had already begun. The government was able to simply continue the status quo with what these people had learned to do under Fidel and now are doing without him.

CA: What does that mean for the Cuban people?

Sweig: The conventional wisdom has always been that Cuba was a house of cards that was based on the charisma and repression of Fidel and Raúl, and that those qualities were what kept things in place. When [Fidel] goes, the theory went, the whole thing blows.

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