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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
By Gordon Mott | From 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.

The current situation does not surprise me because my sense of what makes that country, and that nation and that revolution, tick is that it is a lot more than just about Fidel and Raúl and repression. It's the nationalism of Cubans that the regime plays up, and that the U.S. helps to feed. It is one of the fundamental sources of legitimacy that has been cultivated and sustained over the last 50 years. So was I surprised? No.

Moreover, in Washington, there is a very funny, paradoxical frame of mind. On the one hand, the United States sees itself as sort of the überpower. We have crafted a policy meant to topple the regime, always assuming that we are capable of toppling Cuba despite all of the evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, the very policy makers and individuals within the policy community—the Congress and intelligence agencies that have by and large supported this current status quo—seem to underestimate the power of U.S. policy inside Cuba, and our effect on their domestic politics.

There are a number of internal factors, however, that help explain why Cuba didn't explode or implode. The big external reason why it didn't implode is because of the circling-of-the-wagons mentality that dominates Cuba. The cadre that runs the country and the population at large, when confronted with hostility from the United States, which they have come to expect, circles the wagons. And we for some reason underestimate that as a factor in sustaining the revolution.

CA: Does that mean that the U.S. government and the American people don't really know what's going on in Cuba?

Sweig: By and large, the answer is that we are totally isolated from them. In the last six months, from Fidel's illness to the end of January, it is my very strong guess that there's been no contact. There is no back channel. There is not even a minimum contact, except for the gate in Guantánamo. There has been no initiative undertaken directly by the Bush administration to reach out to the collective leadership that Raúl now leads.

You have to go back to the shoot-down in 1996 of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, after which there was a period of limited contact. Then, leading up to the papal visit in 1998, the Clinton administration and the Cuban government began to resurrect some of the official and unofficial, and formal and informal, ties.

Under President Bush, most of the official contact stopped almost immediately, although we kept meeting with the Cubans for immigration talks. We had those bilateral immigration meetings twice a year since 1994 until about 2002 and then the Bush administration cut them off in 2003.

Those talks represented two opportunities a year when the Cubans would send up a pretty high-level group, headed often by Ricardo Alarcon (see interview, page 62). Our delegation was less senior, but that was always an opportunity. Those ended. Then, family travel was cut off, remittances were cut off and the people-to-people contact was cut off and all the cultural stuff was cut off, and all that was left was the agricultural trade that Congress had voted on and the President approved.

The United States government has been totally isolated from the key cast of characters probably for lots of different reasons that have to do with those assumptions we are talking about and because of domestic politics here. Certainly, Iraq played a role because it made Cuba a low-stakes issue. If you are a senior policy maker in Washington, why are you going to blow your wad on an issue like Cuba? In fact, why are you going to blow your wad on an issue like Latin America? So, there's been very little to be gained by messing with Cuba.

But now the Bush administration has been forced to confront a potential major change on their hands. And what's interesting is that the very stability of the last six months has reinforced that policy inertia that has existed for the entire Bush administration.

The events of the last six months have changed a lot of things, including some of the fundamental assumptions about the situation inside Cuba. If you read the testimony of John Negroponte and the deputy director of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] to the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, at least the public parts, it is a pretty significant example of just how isolated we have been and how we have misread Cuba's domestic policy. The testimony of these two men basically says we expect stability inside Cuba to continue.

CA: Haven't State Department officials also gone on the record saying that the Cuban people must be the catalyst for any political change?

Sweig: That's true. The other thing is there's a deafening silence from this administration, or maybe it's an admission of failure. There is nobody in this administration that defends the current policy, other than Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, who was born in Havana. With the exception of an occasional statement by him, they don't defend it publicly. They don't defend it privately, at all. I mean, I have debated top administration officials, but it hasn't been very challenging to win an argument with them.

CA: But it was just a few years ago that the State Department, under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, released a 600-page document outlining how to manage a transition in a post-Fidel Cuba, the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. To any reader, it was a virtual repetition of everything the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami has been saying for years, wasn't it?

Sweig: Since then, the Cuban American National Foundation is severely weakened. But with men like Roger Noriega, who was in place at the time of that report in the State Department, those ideas had a supporter. Noriega was and is a true believer. He came out of Sen. Jesse Helms's office and was an author of the [1996] Helms-Burton Act. [Editor's note: Helms-Burton imposed tighter sanctions on Cuba and placed the authorization for the trade embargo in the Congress.] He and Otto Reich [a former State Department official] were focused on the most ideological touch points of the hemisphere: Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba. And that has radically changed.

Cuba has been lowered as a priority. It's now almost solely the province of domestic politics. You once had people talking about how the United States can support a transition to democracy and throwing around buzz words like regime change. But outside of Miami, that stuff is not taken seriously. In Havana, it still is taken seriously, but nowhere else.

CA: Going back to 2002, do you trace that cutoff of all contact at that point to that Reich-Noriega group inside the Bush administration?

Sweig: Absolutely. They didn't make this decision themselves. It had to have been something that was approved by Colin Powell and Richard Armitage [deputy secretary of state at the time], even if they disagreed at some level. I wouldn't put words in their mouth, but you don't know really where Powell probably stood on this. At his confirmation hearings, Powell made some statements to the effect [about] Cuba having been quite successful in dealing with major development issues like health care. And he was forced to back down immediately. So my view is that people like Reich and Noriega were just allowed to run with it. Plus, in preparing for the 2004 elections, Karl Rove wanted to secure the Hispanic vote and saw cracking down on Cuba, and even cutting off Cuban-American travel and remittances, as one way to strengthen Bush's return with Hispanics and especially [Cuban Americans].

CA: Does that mean that after 2002 and the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, no one has had any oversight over U.S.-Cuba policy?

Sweig: No, because when we started the war in Iraq, that's when a marginal issue gets run by marginal people. But one result is that there's been a lot of stability in Cuba. And the United States has the Cuban government to thank for that stability.

You have also a potential vulnerability. Go back to 1996 after the shoot-down of the planes. That incident was a product of anxious Cuban-American exiles who were worried that the White House and the Cuban government were going to cut a deal. The exiles wanted to provoke some sort of military confrontation to derail that process.

Although that cast of characters is weaker 10 years later than it was in the '90s, the fact is that we have no senior-level communication, the fact is that we have no back channels, and that means that the day that Fidel does die, if there is an effort at a flotilla toward Cuba or a refugee exodus toward the United States, there's no contact to help resolve it. The current status quo may be enough: we worry about our security, the Cubans worry about their security, and anything that falls through the cracks will hopefully not create a crisis that can't be managed.

CA: Doesn't a political vacuum like that create a higher risk?

Sweig: It's not just that. The foreign policy leadership vacuum creates a vulnerability. We are now legally in a position where for the guts of our policy to change, Congress has to make those changes.

Our November 2006 elections were important, however. Before those elections, you already had a kind of latent bipartisan majority that supported change. Now we have a congressional leadership which by and large does as well.

More importantly than that, we have to get into the politics of both parties. It's not so cut and dried. What the White House has lost is House Republican leadership that will strip embargo-loosening legislation in conference and abide by the veto threat from the White House. So that alliance is gone and it creates a space or an opening for change. The new Democratic Party leadership will be more likely to allow debate and legislation to move forward.

CA: Who are the new players on Capitol Hill?

Sweig: Let's break it down by party, and then by House of Representatives and the Senate.

In the post—Cold War era, when the debates first started on the merits of the Cuban embargo, you had a kind of anti-sanctions coalition that was backed by agriculture and the manufacturing industry and backed partially by tourism and telecommunications. It was not only focused on Cuba, but on sanctions as a foreign policy tool. The question was whether they work, whether they don't. It took place in the wake of South Africa, and it was really about Libya and Pakistan and all of the other countries subject to sanctions. Cuba had different kinds of sanctions on it.

But the voices that care about the Western Hemisphere include Sen. Christopher Dodd [D-CT]. In the early 1990s, Dodd was chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and continues to have that role. Dodd has been very important as a liberal critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba, a critic of wars in Central America, and as such, he has been vilified by some on the right in Congress and the press for the roles he has played. But I would say Dodd is probably the most important voice of the early anti-sanction school.

Sen. Richard Lugar [R-IN), a Republican, has carried the anti-sanction flag strongly throughout the 1990s. He has been and continues to be somebody who is a voice of moderation within the Republican Party.

Then, you have the Cuban-American representatives in the House: Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R-FL), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL] and [until recently] Bob Menendez [D-NJ]. Menendez is now in the Senate, and you have Albio Sires [D-NJ], who took his seat in the House. But the Lincoln-Ileana axis, the hard-liners, has been very, very important with both a Republican and Democratic White House. Now we also have Mario Diaz [R-FL], Lincoln's little brother, who is also in the Congress.

There's Charles Rangel [D-NY], in the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had a traditionally more open view toward Cuba for a variety of reasons. Rangel epitomizes that attitude.

Because of the anti-sanction drumbeat in the 1990s, and because the Cold War ended, a bunch of new domestic constituencies got involved in the debate on Cuba. In the agricultural field, most especially, you saw the first anti-sanction agricultural bill sponsored by [then] Sen. John Ashcroft [R-MO]. That was surely not an ideological gesture on his part; it was for campaign finances from his constituents.

You had people like Norm Coleman [R-MN) when he came into the Senate after Paul Wellstone died. Coleman, when he was mayor of St. Paul, was participating in delegations to Cuba because he had constituents in Minnesota who were interested in the country.

What essentially happened was the Clinton administration used the loopholes in the Cuban Democracy Act [editor's note: a bill introduced by then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) in 1992 that prohibited any foreign-based subsidiary of a U.S. company from doing business with Cuba] to begin to drive a bottom-up process where you would get different constituents interested in Cuba that would have the effect of neutralizing, in theory, the Cuban-American hard line within and outside the Congress. And it was successful.

By the end of the 1990s, you had 200,000 Americans going to Cuba a year. Every other second there was an ad for an international trade show. Cigar Aficionado did its interview with Fidel. The message from the Cubans was, "Damn, we may be well interested in opening for business." It was tentative, but they were playing footsies with us right back.

In the Congress, Coleman comes in but changes hats because he has to get in line with Karl Rove's White House.

Then you have Mel Martinez. He's an Orlando councilman in real estate development from Orlando, Florida. When Elián González [the Cuban boy who fled Cuba but then sparked a custodial fight involving his father in Cuba] went to Disney World, that was Martinez's entry into national politics. He became secretary of [Housing and Urban Development] and then a senator, handpicked by Karl Rove. It was very much about domestic politics and his role in that whole Elián González episode. Martinez, now also the chair of the Republican National Committee, may be among those Republican Cuban Americans close to the White House who might support restoring Cuban-American family travel, and not much else.

CA: Isn't that a fairly big shift in itself?

Sweig: Yes. Family travel was all but eliminated in 2004. But it was politically damaging to the Republican Party. They lost 14 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida by comparison to 2000 against the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who took a moderate position in support of Cuban-American and people-to-people contact.

But there is some possible bipartisan movement in the Senate to remove the travel bans.

In general, however, the Republican view is this is a regime that absolutely ought to be changed. Democrats are not necessarily sympathetic to a 50-year authoritarian regime, but are a little bit more eager to, or ready to criticize, the hypocrisy of U.S. policy and the failures of U.S. policy in Latin America. They see Cuba as a symbol that is a leftover Cold War policy. They would argue for following the model of Eastern Europe and other formally closed societies, that the best way to bring openness internally is openness externally.

For reasons that I think have to do with the domestic politics of the issue, any hearings will start in the House of Representatives. They will address hot-button issues to take the Bush administration to task over issues like the fact that Luis Posada Carrilles, who is a terrorist, is being held on immigration charges but could, in principle, be released at any time. [Editor's note: Posada Carrilles is accused of being involved in the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976.] He is a terrorist and needs to be treated as a terrorist. That's going to get a hearing.

Another hot button is the General Accounting Office report that just came out and shows that the lion's share of the money that is spent for a democracy promotion program just goes to the Miami-based anti-Castro cottage industry. It pales in comparison to Iraq, but for tiny little Cuba it embodies everything that's wrong with the policy. They will have hearings on that.

They may also have hearings on why Cuba is on the State Department's list of terrorist countries.

Then, Congress will have hearings on the overall merits of the policy on the travel ban. The travel ban is seen as the jewel in the crown. If you get rid of the travel ban, if you want to talk about a house of cards, the whole house of cards of U.S. policy collapses. Because that means that Americans, not just the two of us, go down there and see for themselves that Cuba is a real country, but not some boogeyman that we need to isolate and beat up.

In that context, you get the tourism industry pushing politically and then really, it's over. The travel ban will get a hearing, but my guess is because of the domestic politics of the issue, even the Democrats will be hesitant to push for much more than restoring Cuban-American family travel, as a first step. And then they'll give that some time to make itself felt. They will do something more after the 2008 election.

Domestic politics, and this relates back to Florida, could slow the progress toward a change. Although the Cuban American National Foundation is not dead yet, there is at least one Democrat who is a member of its board, and he has made it very clear to his party that the swing vote in Florida is up for grabs. He wants the Democratic Party to believe that if his party goes too fast on the Cuban embargo, they will have a big political price to pay. But I'm not sure of that anymore.

CA: Is that still true even though many Cuban Americans today are second- or even third-generation and they feel differently than their parents or grandparents, who came here after the revolution?

Sweig: I would be the first person to argue—and am the first person to argue—that it is time we make changes. But the Cuban-American community, even though in terms of age demographics and passion, it is a much different community than it was 10 years ago during the heyday of the Cuban American National Foundation, there is not a consensus for a huge overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba. What also isn't clear is whether the rest of the constituents in the country can offset the views of the Cuban-American community.

Does it make sense to allow a small percentage of a small population of one group in our country to continue to set the tone and pace of our foreign policy? No, of course not. Everybody gets that. There's nobody that doesn't. If you had a secret vote today in the Congress, there would be a majority voting to end the embargo tomorrow. Sixty-six percent of the American public supports that result.

So the real game is, are there some face-saving measures for the Cuban-American community? And, then there has to be broader domestic political public support for an overhaul. That depends on everything else. You know Cuba is not likely to come up for extensive debate in Washington with the other issues facing the country right now. My view is that it is a low-stakes issue. Precisely because of the stability in Cuba in the last six months, there is no urgency in changing anything, especially rapidly.

CA: With what is happening across Latin America, with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and, just recently, Daniel Ortega winning the presidency in Nicaragua, how does that affect the U.S.-Cuba situation?

Sweig: Sure, it has an effect. But if it were up to me, the smartest way to neutralize the Ortega-Chavez-Morales-Castro grouping—I'm not going to call it an axis—would be to start picking them off. The bottom line is that the vulnerability of the revolutionary project in Cuba will depend in part on Raúl Castro carving out a better material life for the people. The way to deliver a better material life is to tie the Cuban market to the American market, not necessarily overnight, but over time.

Moreover, Cubans love Americans and we have what President William McKinley called ties of a singular intimacy with Cuba. So there would be an enormous domestic benefit inside of Cuba to finally putting this enmity aside. It has to be done correctly. But [the Cubans] could keep a lot of what they have with Venezuela—the money and the oil—and still find a modus vivendi with the United States.

But that way of seeing things assumes America still has leverage and influence in this hemisphere. What it looks like is that we have increasingly less of it.

On the one hand, I think Washington is looking at Latin America a bit more seriously under the second term of the Bush administration, including the president's [recent] trip to the region. That's true even with the situation in Iraq. You have had a dozen senior senators going to Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Now that, I think, is remarkable, because Latin America is the region of the world that most graphically demonstrates how far afield the United States has gone in terms of its reputation and its standing. And, it's the region of the world where the United States could most easily recover its standing.

Cuba is such a symbol of that, that we would get an enormous benefit, a huge gain symbolically and substantively, from just putting this Cuba issue to bed within the region. We really ought to. George Bush has nothing to lose whatsoever by looking at the important parts of his own party and in his own state of Texas. The energy, agricultural and tourism industries would applaud a move like this.

But the decider made a decision when he came into office to fight for freedom and democracy in Cuba. I can't see him walking away from that decision, just like he's not walking away from other far more catastrophic decisions he has made in foreign affairs.

Frankly, you know, I think that domestic politics will always come back to the front of this issue. But on the foreign policy front, since Cuba has continued to be so stable since Fidel's illness, why should they fix what ain't broke?

On the domestic politics front you do take a big risk as a party to really shake things up. Even if you wanted to, it would be hard. I remember at the end of the Clinton administration, there were some noises coming out of the secretary of state's office about what kind of bold moves could be made with respect to Cuba, and that was about legacy. I guess President Bush might be looking for legacy issues. But his family has some ties with the Cuban hard-liners that I can't see him wanting to touch that.

CA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't he have limited options for any executive decisions to change U.S. policy, especially in regard to the embargo?

Sweig: I would argue that there are plenty of loopholes within Helms-Burton. It is fact that right now he can't make the embargo go away. That's codified by Helms-Burton. That takes congressional action.

But Raúl Castro has now said twice, and the second statement is stronger than the first: We are ready to negotiate anything but our own survival. A clever White House looking at the Latin American panorama, looking at the domestic politics, would potentially look at that and say, "Goodness, what might we be able to talk with the Cubans about and what kind of rabbit could we pull out of the hat here?"

The Cubans want access to our markets. We share a bunch of security issues that are generally untended to in the Straits of Florida. There's oil drilling in Cuban territory in the Gulf of Mexico. Is there any sort of environmental preparation that the two countries are planning on the cleanup front?

There are security issues. There are terrorism issues. There's port security. There's bilateral issues that we could, and should, be talking with them. It wouldn't imply that we like their system or that we reward Raúl. It's straight national security stuff. Who knows? By the virtue of a gesture of that nature, that would send a political signal to Congress that perhaps the White House was willing to stand back while the Congress ushered in more significant legislation and the embargo. In this sort of dynamic, face-saving measures for Cuba's leaders would be critical too.

CA: Is there anybody in the White House that's promoting that message?

Sweig: They have designated Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, to be the senior person in this administration and a number of other people in the State Department, senior-level career foreign service people, to speak on this. They and the bureaucracy made a big deal out of their success in marginalizing the Cuban hard-liners in the Congress.

But honestly I don't think there is any energy at the White House for a big Cuba policy shift.

CA: How does the United States need to change its approach to Cuba?

Sweig: The gist of the public messages from the United States is: "Become something you are not and then we'll talk. Commit political suicide and we'll talk." Like Iran and North Korea, the Cuban regime doesn't respond to that. What incentive do they have?

I've talked a little bit about how an opening with the United States would benefit Cuba. They lived with the hostility long enough that they've gotten used to it. And frankly, with all this Venezuelan oil wealth, the political economy they are managing today is different than it was four or five years ago when the Cuban government invested an enormous amount in lobbying in this country to get an opening. They were treated horribly, and along came Chavez who has just been reelected. So they don't have the same incentive today to move too quickly.

This second Bush administration, despite more skillful public statements, has continued to work very hard to damage the Cuban regime through sanctions. There has been a mandate to clamp down on the enforcement of travel violations and they really have. And they've continued to look at ways of restricting Cuba's financial flow in the international financial system.

There has been no retreat in the enforcement of economic sanctions. There has been a retreat in the kind of language used but not in the enforcement area. The Office of Foreign Assets Control in recent years seems to be have vigorously enforced the embargo against Cuba even though there are greater terrorist threats out there in the world.

CA: How would you define an ideal, new U.S. policy toward Cuba?

Sweig: I would reinstate all of the executive regulations that were instituted in 1999 and 2000 that allowed not only Cuban Americans but Americans with academic, cultural, educational and humanitarian interests to travel to Cuba under license and to send remittances and spend money in Cuba. That could be done today by executive fiat, immediately.

Second, on the legislative front, I would move to get rid of the travel ban. It's the jewel in the crown and for that reason it won't happen overnight. That's a serious amount of heavy political lifting that would have to take place.

I don't think that ending the travel ban is important so that American tourists can go to Cuba. I think it is important because with more Americans going to Cuba freely, the kind of siege mentality that has entrapped the Cuban body politic will begin to lift. That's the kind of measure the United States can take to be helpful for Cuba's future. If you want to talk about a transition to a more open society, that signal coming from the most powerful country in the world is critical.

Third, on the bilateral front, we have a whole range of security issues that bilaterally have been largely neglected: narco trafficking, human smuggling, all the dark side of globalization and the transnational security threats. Cuba, geographically, is right in the center of the Caribbean basin, and has a huge coastline and needs resources and is favorably disposed to policing its waters. It is a conservative society and a conservative government that sees, as we did with the Gen. Arnoldo Ochoa incident in 1989, how destabilizing drugs and crime and corruption can be. [Editor's note: General Ochoa was executed for allegedly helping smuggle drug shipments from South America.] That's a natural alliance there for this or a Democratic administration.

The bilateral agenda on the security front, changes on the legislative front and in addition to the travel ban, I don't see any reason to have any economic sanctions whatsoever. We're not going to sell them security-related, high-technology stuff. That's not the issue. There's a whole universe of life between the two countries that needs to be nourished.

That's it in a nutshell.

Some critics will say that the agenda that I laid out rewards 50 years of repression and dictatorship, and the last thing that the United States should do when the revolution and the regime are vulnerable is help Raúl Castro. They say that will perpetuate him in power indefinitely.

I think we've seen the mistake borne out of personalizing our policy, whether it is around Fidel Castro, or Saddam Hussein. At this point, what Raúl Castro eats for breakfast, or lunch or dinner, and what wine he drinks, or the way officials live in Cuba, is not of concern. What is of concern is that the political space inside Cuba begin to open. The only shot that the United States has, and it's not necessarily going to change anything, is to signal that we are not interested in the leadership; in fact, we are interested in the people.

Of course, all of that assumes that the Cuban government wants or would be a willing and interested participant. It's not clear to me that is the case. I mean despite Raúl's statements, this is an environment where the embargo and the hostility give the Cuban government a buffer and the shelter it needs to make the transition without the exposure to the United States that this kind of openness agenda would create.

But in a way it doesn't really matter. Although there is an embargo, the Cuban government trades and has ties with the rest of the world. But it is not an entirely open society. It picks who it wants to deal with, how and what foreign investment comes in. It will do that with the United States as well.

The agricultural purchases are a really good barometer of the strategic thinking coming out of the Cuban government, where you see political cherry-picking. I've asked these guys if they have a map of the United States deciding which company they are going to purchase from in order to embolden different members of the Congress. They laugh, and say, of course not. But I'm sure they do. They ought to. That kind of cherry-picking, as long as the nature of the regime remains as it is today, is going to continue.

But I think the important thing is the extent to which the Cuban government can use the hostility with the United States to justify repression and justify continuing to be a closed society.

CA: Do you see any signs that Raúl might have a different approach than his older brother?

Sweig: Raúl is 75. He looks like he is in good health. But he is clearly hyperconscious of his limited, temporary ability to make this thing stick. He gave a speech two or three weeks ago in which he said essentially, Let the debate begin. He said the country needs to have dissent and a real debate. The speech seemed to acknowledge that the old guys are leaving, and we are not going to be long on this earth, and a new generation is coming into power.

It looks like he is trying to shake up a generation of people who have been so accustomed to Fidel totally dominating politics there. They are used to that not just because of repression, but because of the status quo. That status quo needs to change. People need to be willing to get involved as citizens. That is their civic duty to invest in their future. And that's only the beginning of it. Raúl seems to be very cognizant of that, and clear that his legacy may well not be his amazing institutional building capacity, or his ruthlessness as a commander, but precisely his ability to get Cuba through the next five years.

In the 1980s, as perestroika and glasnost were just making themselves known to the West, Raúl was the one who started making the case to send people to Europe to learn how to run businesses, and to train the military bloc in operating private enterprises, and for opening up capitalist businesses and accounting practices. But you shouldn't get confused. While he clearly understands the importance of the dynamism of the market, you shouldn't think that makes him a liberal. It just makes him a pragmatist.

There's also Ricardo Alarcon, who has been the president of the National Assembly. He's been there almost 15 years. There will be new National Assembly elections in 2008, and it's possible Alarcon might have a new role after that.

But for now at least, and most importantly for managing the relationship with the United States, Alarcon is the point person, along with Fernando Ramirez, who was at the U.N. mission in New York and then was head of the Interest Section in Washington until about 2001. He is very important too. Ramirez went back to Cuba and was deputy foreign minister. He has been moved to run international relations at the central committee of the Communist Party, and he's one of the nine people who is a member of the newly resurrected Secretariat within the party. He's young. He started out as the president of the Federacion Estudiantile Universitaria [University Student Federation]. He is one of the people most responsible for putting the "responsible partner" face on the Cuban initiative in the 1990s to open up to the United States.

There's Carlos Lage, who is really the economic czar. And there's Felipe Perez Roque, who is the foreign minister. There has been lots of speculation about Lage's stewardship of the economy in the post-Fidel era. He's been very critical in defining what comes in vis-a-vis foreign investment. Perez Roque could be someone important, but it is just really hard to know.

The inner workings of the Cuban government are the hardest part of Cuba to penetrate. They are enormously disciplined. It is really hard to speculate. For now, you've got Perez Roque, Lage and Francisco Soberon, head of the Central Bank, all of whom cut their teeth in the government during the 1990s.

What's interesting about that constellation is that not one of them could run the country by himself. They all know that. It's kind of like they are one big body, and they have the brain and the heart and the digestive tract, but they can't do anything by themselves.

I think the Secretariat of the Communist Party has been reconstituted because the party, as an entity and a legitimate instrument of government, needed to be strengthened. The Secretariat existed until the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and then it was removed. It's back. The membership is not all people who are older than their mid-50s. It is female and Afro-Cuban, too, and it is much more diverse.

Raúl has said that the only thing that can replace Fidel Castro is the Communist Party. What that implies ideally is small "d" democracy and representation and participation because the party is huge. It is a million and a half people. If you multiply that by four, or a family of four, it's over half the country connected somehow to the party. That's the main instrument of continuity. And so is the military. Let's not forget that the military is important. The military has a national defense function, but it has an economic function too. And it has a political function too.

CA: Is Cuba moving toward the Chinese military model, in which it has stewardship of big parts of the economy?

Sweig: The Cuban military is increasingly a business organization. They have a national defense function, and they will continue to have that. But through real estate, tourism and minerals, they have major, major pieces of the economy. So they are stakeholders that Raúl will have to continue to make happy. They are loyal. They are nationalist. They are pragmatic.

They also are concerned about problems with corruption in Cuba, increasingly so. That's one of their big anxieties, I believe, about opening up, is the corruption. It is so corrosive, and so damaging, and could hurt them. They are very aware of that.

In the military especially, it is a pretty delicate balancing act, of how much do you throw to them and how much do you track to keep a lid on it.


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