Reaction mixed to Castro’s illness

Sunday, August 6, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

For MU history professor Robert Smale, Fidel Castro’s temporary relinquishing of power may mean the introduction of a new chapter in his studies. For Nicolas Jimenez, his life.

But then again, maybe not.

“I think now more than before, it’s hard to really know what’s going on over there,” said Jimenez, the president of the MU Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association.

What is obvious for both is Castro’s impact on history and that Cuba’s future is full of speculation.

To Smale, whose specialty is in Latin American socialist movements of the 20th century, Castro’s tenure was the catalyst for a new era in Latin American history, inspiring failed attempts at revolution in the region. Smale said Cuba’s revolution caused the U.S. government to pour money into Latin America to stop the spread of communism, and prompted the support of military dictatorships in the 1960s and ’70s.

“The events of the Cuban Revolution, its political influence, have touched almost every single Latin American nation in the 20th century,” he said.

For Jimenez, Castro’s reign has touched almost every aspect of his life. “It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like if he’d never ruled ... I only exist because of Fidel,” he said.

His parents met after their families had separately fled to Miami. Still, he said, Castro owes him and other Cuban expatriates for the democratic rights they lost when he took power and for the loss of their homeland. Jimenez is eager to see Castro dead and to see a change in Cuba. With Castro ailing and ceding control, Jimenez has reason to hope.

“I never thought I’d be so excited about someone’s gastrointestinal problems,” he said.

Eduardo del Castillo, a Cuban native and retired professor who emigrated to the United States 43 years ago, speaks as if he has seen the world change many times over. Though he knew of Castro’s past health problems, he was surprised by the dictator’s intestinal surgery.

“I didn’t expect anything to happen suddenly,” del Castillo said.

Castro had always been an active and strong man, he said.

When Castro started his revolution in 1959, del Castillo said, his magnetism and his policies — particularly on agrarian issues — made him a hero to the Cuban people. He said Castro has evaded assassinations through the hold he had on those near him.

It is this personal strength that leads Smale to question the possibility of a communist Cuba without Castro.

“Castro has always been the star, the spokesman, of the communist government of Cuba,” he said. “Can this government stay in place without Fidel Castro’s charisma?”

Del Castillo thinks so. The Communist Party has been making preparations for succession for years, he said, and he said he believes the majority of Cubans still support the government. While they may have complaints, namely about the restriction of consumer goods, Cubans still support the communist system, he said.

“I get the sense in Cuba — the future of Cuba — is in the hands of the people who are in power,” del Castillo said. “The change in Cuba will come inside the government. I don’t foresee an internal revolt in Cuba.”

Because Raul Castro, who is defense minister, enjoys the support of the party, military and police, the likelihood of a power struggle is small, Smale said. But, he added, the question remains: Could this power stand up to popular discontent?

In the meantime, Jimenez impatiently waits for his return to Miami to cele­brate what he and his friends see as a new beginning — a Cuba without Fidel Castro and communism. Still, he is trying not to jump to conclusions. The Cuban government could be exaggerating the extent of Castro’s illness, he said, to allow Raul Castro to conduct a “test run.”

“So many people have been dying for this to happen,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for this for 48 years now. I won’t know what to think until I see a body on my TV screen, dead or alive.”

Jimenez is not the only one who wants to see change on the island. The U.S. presidential commission three weeks ago requested $80 million for a program to support dissidents and nongovernmental groups in Cuba.

Even if Fidel Castro dies soon, a change in the nature of U.S-Cuba relations is not necessarily assured.

“Raul will probably continue the foreign policy practices of his brother,” Smale said, “which is to consistently criticize U.S. foreign policy, to consistently criticize the government of George W. Bush, (and) to put itself in alliance with other critics of the U.S. government.”

Though Raul Castro, 75, ruled Cuba alongside his brother for decades, he might be an enigma among Cubans. He has had very little popular exposure, Smale said, and he’s stayed in the “shadow” of his brother. Frequently, this was to Fidel Castro’s advantage.

“Fidel often comes out looking as a more lenient, indulgent leader because he understands that some of the difficult, bloody work of holding a dictatorship in place is going to be carried out by Raul,” he said.

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