OLD AND NEW LOOK THE SAME IN CUBA

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- While the rest of the world seems rent by violence and "breaking news," obstreperous little Cuba has seemed unusually quiet these last few years.

True, every once in a while the voice of Cuban Presidente Raul Castro cuts dramatically through the miasmic tropical haze, as it did last year when he announced that 500,000 state workers (of 11 million Cubans) would be laid off and moved over into more-or-less free-market jobs.

But when a list of the jobs available for these workers came out months later, it was close to laughable -- only the lowest or most inconsequential jobs were included in this vast employees' "revolution." And this year Raul indefinitely delayed even that change.

So, where IS Cuba today? Is it possible that after 52 years of rule by the Castro brothers, the beautiful, but impoverished island has changed? My FIRM and unalterable analysis is that it is beginning to change ... but maybe not.

Someday, some good writer will pen the fascinating story, not of Cuba, but of the two brothers Castro -- Fidel and Raul -- and how their lives and interaction with each other have changed the history of Cuba. And it may not be the story that many expect.

The government-approved story of this weekend in Havana, for instance, seemed to be all Raul's. As formal president of the country, and as fighter jets stormed above him, he used the opening of the Sixth Communist Party Congress to announce a whole battery of changes: Politicians would be limited to two five-year terms, not, as under communism, terms of "forever." Monthly ration books would be eliminated because of a belated realization: "No country or person can spend more than they have. Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven, as we have sometimes pretended." Over 180,000 licenses would be granted for small businesses (but not for the first time).

Fidel even seemed to be going so far as to smooth the path for his younger brother (Fidel is 84; Raul is 79) by saying shortly before this party congress that, in addition to leaving the presidency to his brother in 2006, he had also quit as head of the Communist Party, the most prominent post on the island. He was apparently trying to show that Raul had really been running things all along these last five years.

The fact that a Communist Party Congress had not even been held since 1997, most probably because of the failure of the Brothers & Co. to agree upon new, younger leaders and because of ongoing economic disasters, also provided an important historic marker to the effect that the leadership was ready now to move on -- but to what?

At the end of the 1970s, for instance, then-Presidente Fidel announced liberalizations similar to those being announced now by Raul. But it was all a play of smoke and mirrors. Fidel simply used the maneuver to bare for public political perusal those who were against him and destroy them, and those same licenses for small businesses promised then were quickly rescinded.

Moreover, if Americans want any real proof of change in Cuba, they could just look at the fact that, only this winter, when one might have thought that relations between the U.S. and Cuba were bettering, the Cuban government sentenced an American contractor, 61-year-old Alan P. Gross of suburban Washington, to 15 years in prison for bringing satellite telephone equipment to the small community of Cuban Jews.

So, all of these pluses and minuses in the recent relationship between the U.S. and Cuba -- and personally, I see more minuses at this moment than pluses -- only mean that we are far, indeed, from Cuba truly working out the leadership questions of "los Castro" or "the Castros."

Fidel has often been thought, over the years, to have played tricks on an innocent world. He was a "democrat," it was widely thought in the early years, and one who was badly misunderstood by the Western world. But even though he declared himself "a communist" in the early '60s, he never really was that, either. Fidel was always a charismatic "caudillo," one of those men of history like Peron, or Mussolini, or Hitler who totally control their people by becoming one with them.

Raul was always unlike Fidel, although he, too, was endlessly captivated by his big brother. Raul was small and wiry and scrappy. In the early years, before and after the revolution, he was a true-believing member of the Communist Party, whereas Fidel thought that HE was the only party.

While Fidel was the symbol of Cuba, Raul was a man of structures and systems -- it was he who developed the highly respected Cuban military -- thus it was no surprise, as the New York Times reported, that he could say in his opening speech at the party congress that his generation had failed to prepare a new crop of younger leaders. Indeed, he called for a "systematic rejuvenation of the whole chain of party and administrative posts."

Good luck!

With the world of "los Castro," one can be sure of only one thing. They live in order to never give up power willingly, regardless of which one is on top at which moment. If you begin every exchange with them with that thought firmly in mind, everything will fall into place.

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